I was recently accused of (actually, praised for, but it seemed to me an accusation) supporting “marriage equality”—a slogan that indicates whoever uses it fails to understand either of the terms it combines. The occasion for this slander was, rather ironically, a piece I had written rejecting calls for gay marriage. The piece was misread, I think, because I had positive things to say about gay people and about the love present in countless gay relationships. Apparently this fact was significant enough that there was no need to attend to my actual conclusion.
Something similar is going on with the interim report on the Synod of Bishops meeting now in Rome. It commends what is commendable in gay relationships, rightly pointing out the real love and sacrifice expressed within them. These are some of the same things we praise and envy in marriage, even if they are not correctly ordered and thus precisely and rightly called disordered by Catholic teaching.
But that word—disorder—and its close cousin—sin—were largely missing from the text. At least one bishop is said to have asked: What happened to sin? It’s almost absent from a document that seeks to describe the challenges the family faces today. Who can doubt that the greatest one is the greatest challenge we all face: the persistent devilishness of our desires, the ever-present reality of sin in a world so fallen that to cease lament seems impossible.
Instead of addressing sin, the document calls for “dialogue and cooperation . . . with the social structures.” The clunkiness of the phrasing makes me very much doubt the prospects of the dialogue (clarity being a prerequisite of conversation), though it is indeed important to address the economic conditions that make married life difficult. It is especially discouraging that despite the retrieval of the Church’s scriptural and patristic riches in the wake of Vatican II, that this sounds more like a castrated Marx than Isaiah or Chrysostom. Neglect of the church’s rhetorical tradition and moral teaching go hand in hand.
The curious thing about this silence is that there is perhaps no point of Christian doctrine more immediately plausible, more universally recognizable, than sin. To fall silent about its reality is to cease speaking about human lives in a way those humans can recognize. It is, in the end, a failure of compassion. The truth is that we do not experience our lives as a series of better or worse approximations of an abstract ideal. We instead experience them as shot through with sin, especially our sexual lives, where the presence of another person makes the stakes immediate and high. Have some of our good bishops forgotten that?
This failure to speak goes along with the occasional severe misstatement. The document asks whether the church is capable in its dealings with gay people of “accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?” The answer is surely yes if orientation is meant in the sense used by writers like Eve Tushnet and Aaron Taylor, celibate Catholics who see in their same-sex orientation gifts of love and friendship that are perverted, not perfected, by sexual expression. But coming without necessary clarification or context about the demands of chastity, this statement is more likely to be misread as mooting a change in the Church’s teaching on same-sex acts.
Also troubling is the fact that “gradualness”—the idea that we can slowly come to lead more virtuous lives—is invoked in a way in tension with John Paul II’s clear definition of it in Familiaris Consortio. There he says: “What is known as ‘the law of gradualness’ or step-by-step advance cannot be identified with ‘gradualness of the law,’ as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God’s law for different individuals and situations.” Gradualness is not a permission to give sin a long goodbye, but a recognition that we only slowly grow in grace.
It is wrong to exaggerate the importance of this document as the mainstream media has done, to try to enlist is as a weapon in the culture wars one supposedly decries as Tom Roberts of the National Catholic Reporter has done, or to use it to advance one’s anonymous crankery, as the authors of the funniest Catholic satire site have done. Still, it needs to be said that this document is a failure—not first of all because it stumbles in its representation of doctrine (its problems in that regard have been greatly exaggerated), but because it fails to speak with pastoral sensitivity to the felt reality of the human situation: one of struggle against—and in Christ, victory over—sin.