Lifestyle Ecumenism” is the view that Catholics should practice today a kind of “ecumenism” towards persons in living arrangements other than marriage, such as cohabitation, common law marriage, and same-sex relationships. In dealing with other forms of Christianity we accept that we should look for what is good, and find common ground—confident that all truth leads to the Catholic faith—and we delicately avoid condemnation, favoring patient dialogue instead, so, in dealing with persons in relationships other than sacramental marriage, we should adopt a similar bridge-building approach. Lifestyle Ecumenism, it is claimed, if widely adopted by the Church, would appropriately present to the world the merciful face of Christ—who came to save, not to judge—and ultimately would enable Catholics to be more effective apostolically. Lifestyle Ecumenism was an important concept at the last Synod of the Family and is expected to be influential in the upcoming Synod this October.
Recently, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, who claims to be the originator of Lifestyle Ecumenism, supported the approach with a theological argument, based on two ideas from the Vatican II document, Lumen gentium. The first is the teaching that the Mystical Body of Christ “subsists in” the Catholic Church. The Council Fathers used this subtle formulation, rather than the traditional formulation that the Catholic Church “is” the Mystical Body of Christ, not to deny or weaken that traditional doctrine, but rather to allow room for the claim that “many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of [the Church’s] visible structure,” which should be regarded as “gifts belonging to the Church of Christ” and consequently which are “forces impelling toward catholic unity.” The phrase “subsists in” was meant to suggest that the Catholic Church in contrast does not have gifts borrowed from other communions and is the center toward which other communions lead, not vice versa.
The second idea from Lumen gentium is that the family is as it were a domestic church. The entire passage is worth quoting: “From the wedlock of Christians there comes the family, in which new citizens of human society are born, who by the grace of the Holy Spirit received in baptism are made children of God, thus perpetuating the people of God through the centuries. The family is, so to speak, the domestic church. In it parents should, by their word and example, be the first preachers of the faith to their children; they should encourage them in the vocation which is proper to each of them, fostering with special care vocation to a sacred state.”
The Cardinal has argued that, if the family is a domestic church, then analogously “elements of truth and of sanctification” exist outside of it, which provide the basis for Lifestyle Ecumenism: “I simply proposed to apply this interpretation [of “subsists in” from Lumen gentium] to the ecclesiological reality of the sacrament of marriage. Because marriage is a Church in miniature, an ecclesiola, the family as a small Church, it seems legitimate to me to establish an analogy and say that the sacrament of marriage is fully realized where there is a properly established sacrament between a man and a woman living in faith etc. But this does not prevent that, outside of this full realization of the sacrament of marriage, there be elements of marriage that are anticipatory signs, positive elements” (La Civiltà Cattolica).
What, then, are we to think of this analogy, and the theological basis proposed by Cardinal Schönborn? Lifestyle Ecumenism looks like an attractive idea, and its embrace by the Church could conceivably make life a lot easier for Catholics in a post-Obergefell era, but does the concept withstand logical scrutiny? Lifestyle Ecumenism proposes an analogy, but how good is that analogy?
What should first strike an astute observer is that Cardinal Schönborn seems to have drawn the wrong analogy from the statements in Lumen gentium. Consider what analogate should naturally complete the following schema: As the Catholic Church is related to other Christian communities, so the Catholic family is related to _______ . Obviously, what most naturally completes the analogy is “other Christian families.”
Lumen gentium teaches that the family may be accounted a “domestic church” (est velut ecclesia domestica) precisely in virtue of its relation to the one true Church, insofar as the parents share in the teaching authority of the Church, and the family members partake of the sacramental life of the Church. That is why the Council says the family is “as if” (velut) a domestic Church: The family is not really a free-standing, miniature ecclesial society, of course; rather, the Catholic family is a distinctive participation in the life of the Church. However, when one thing draws its distinctive character from a participation in the other, then, to the extent that that other thing is qualified or receives modifications, then that thing does so as well. The dependent thing has no independent modifications of its own, but only in relation to that on which it depends. Thus, reasoning in this way, we can assert that, although only a faithful Catholic family is properly to be accounted as a “domestic Church,” just as other Christian communities have elements of sanctification and portions of the truth, so the families in those communities have some of the elements of a domestic church. Hence, for example, a family in an Eastern Orthodox church will very much have the characteristics of a domestic church, as the priesthood and Eucharist are preserved in the particular Orthodox churches, but a family in a Southern Baptist congregation, where the priesthood and Eucharist are not preserved—laudable though the prayer life of that family and Christian service may be—will in fact have fewer of the marks of a domestic church. Statements along these lines are the only licit conclusions which may be drawn from those two ideas in Lumen gentium. Those ideas give no support for Lifestyle Ecumenism.
The Cardinal calls the family a small church and then attributes to it an independent relationship to alternative forms. However, since the family is a domestic church only through participation, it has no separate relationship to alternative forms, but only a derivative relationship to those “elements of sanctification and truth” to which the Church is related.
Even so, the Cardinal must misstate the teaching of Lumen gentium to render his desired analogy plausible. As is clear from the passage quoted above, the Council Fathers teach that the family is as it were a domestic church on account of the procreation of children, the teaching of the faith to children, and parents’ helping children discern their vocation. Children are essential to the Council’s concept of the family as a domestic church. But, as is clear from his own statement of his position, Cardinal Schönborn changes the meaning of the passage and makes “the sacrament of marriage” the domestic Church instead. It is easy to see why he has to do so: Many alternative forms of sexual intimacy exclude children, and those that do not exclude children are hardly distinguished by the passing on the faith and the encouragement of vocations.
So the Cardinal changes the concept of the domestic church from the Catholic family to the sacrament of marriage. Yet, on that premise, his talk of “anticipatory signs” now becomes odd. It usual in the Catholic tradition to follow Our Lord and say that marriage is “from the beginning.” Our Lord’s insistence on indissolubility restored marriage to how it was “from the beginning.” But it is odd to speak of “anticipatory signs,” that is, signs in advance, of that which is built into the very logic of creation. Presumably the Cardinal has to use the language of “anticipatory signs” because it would be implausible to say, in the language of the Council, that there are “forces impelling to sacramental marriage” in expressions of sexual intimacy outside of marriage. Nothing in the hook-up culture is impelling anyone to get married. (The phrase “shot-gun marriage” clearly signals that the impelling force, if anything, comes from outside that sort of culture.) It is a common criticism of cohabitation, that people will, even on their own terms, stay in these relationships longer than they should: not that cohabiting couples are not getting married when their relationship is “impelling” them to do so. It is unclear, too, what helpful sense could be placed on the idea that persons in same-sex unions show “anticipatory signs” of the sacrament of marriage.
These problems in the Cardinal’s analogy are severe enough, but perhaps the most glaring of all is that the analogy commits a category mistake. The Catholic Church is a particular thing, a definite and concrete society, existing over time; likewise the various Eastern Churches, and the Protestant communities, are each concrete realities. Ecumenism is a movement towards unity among these concrete realities, with the aim of uniting them all in a single concrete reality. But “marriage” is a kind of relationship, not a concrete thing. “Cohabitation,” “second marriages,” “homosexual unions,” and so on, are all similarly kinds of relationships. There can be no question of uniting these different kinds of things, any more than “square” can be united with “circle.” In principle the Lutheran community, for example, could join with the Catholic Church and form a single, extended reality; but “cohabitation” cannot join with “marriage” and form a single reality. Again, the various forms of Christianity “split off” from the Catholic Church over the centuries. Ecumenism is the effort to bring separated parts back into an original unity. But modes of sexual intimacy such as cohabitation and adultery have not “split off” from marriage.
A particular marriage is indeed a concrete reality. So suppose we recast the Cardinal’s analogy and say: The Catholic Church is related to other forms of Christianity, the way that a particular married couple is related to the cohabiting couples, adulterous couples, people in homosexual unions, and so on, that it knows. Does the analogy fare any better if understood in this way? Obviously not. These cohabiting couple, and so on, have not “split off” from the married couple; and no married couple is aiming to form a single, united intimate relationship with all the cohabiting couples, adulterous couples, and homosexual unions that they know.
So Cardinal Schönborn’s analogy cannot be arrived at through the teachings of Lumen gentium; it involves changing a main analogate from the Catholic family to the sacrament of marriage; it involves a confusing and strange notion of “anticipatory signs;” and it commits an outright logical fallacy, a category mistake. But the Catholic faithful who react against it with indignation are probably most concerned about the presence of grave sin, at least material sin, in alternative forms of sexual intimacy besides marriage. It is an immediate consequence of Catholic teaching that sexual intimacy is, in the sight of God, permissible only within the bond of marriage, that all forms of sexual intimacy outside of marriage are vitiated by behavior which, in itself, is highly displeasing to God. But we do not hold that being a member of a Christian community other than the Church ipso facto involves persons in behavior itself displeasing to God. So, it is believed, the analogy must break down.
The Cardinal responds to this type of criticism with fairly broad-brushed criticisms of the idea of “intrinsically evil” actions, blaming those “intransigent moralists” who fail to appreciate the subtle or perhaps tragic blend of good and bad in the facts and circumstances of human life: “In practice, it excludes any reference to the question of fitness [convenientia] that, for St. Thomas, is always a way of expressing prudence. It is neither utilitarianism nor an easy pragmatism, but a way to express a sense of appropriateness, of conformity, of harmony. Regarding the question of divorce, this type of argument has been systematically excluded by our intransigent moralists. If misunderstood, the intrinsece malum suppresses discussion of—by definition complex—circumstances of and situations in life. A human act is never simple, and the risk is to ‘paste’ in a false relationship between the true object, purpose and circumstances, which instead should be read in the light of freedom and of an attraction to the good. The free act is reduced to a physical one so that the clarity of logic suppresses any moral discussion and all circumstances. . . . The paradox is that by focusing in the intrinsece malum one loses all the wealth, I would say almost the beauty of a moral articulation, resulting in its annihilation.”
It should be noted that these remarks by the Cardinal, on how much emphasis should be given to the “intrinsic evil” of certain kinds of actions, are of completely general import. They need to be evaluated, not on the basis of how they comport with particular difficult cases of divorce and remarriage—familiar in a personal way to all of us — but rather on the basis of how valid they are for the moral life in general. I would here simply observe, as regards St. Thomas, that he held that, in prudence, the Ten Commandments could not be relaxed by appeal to more fundamental considerations, since the virtue of epieikeia does not apply to the Ten Commandments. For us, St. Thomas taught, these commandments are fundamental law and express the basic intention of the Creator as lawgiver. Of course, this is not to say that we should not, as much as possible, “find excuses for others,” show understanding, and be quick to think that others’ subjective responsibility is mitigated.
However much the Cardinal thinks it best to put to the side the reality of sin and the intrinsic evil of sexual intimacy outside of marriage, these considerations do seem to imply another fatal objection to the Cardinal’s analogy. Sexual intimacy outside of marriage is necessarily intrinsically evil, but there is no necessary intrinsic evil in being a disciple of Christ outside the Catholic Church. Break down that discipleship into its components, and each is good: prayer, worship, fellowship, service, and imitation of Christ. Protestants are not in virtue of being Protestants engaged in any material mortal sin. If some doctrine does imply harm—as for instance, the doctrine that infants should not be baptized—nonetheless it is not essential that any Christian outside the Church hold this doctrine, and relatively few Christians do. Or suppose that becoming one sort of Protestant required taking an oath to steal and to murder. Obviously “ecumenism” would break down in that case: the members of that sect would have to be confronted with their evildoing and asked to give that up before any fellowship based on shared friendship in Christ could go forward. But all sexually intimate relationships besides marriage involve intrinsic evil: or, if that element is removed, then what is left is not any kind of controversial “alternative lifestyle,” but simply a form of friendship.
Actually, to say that sexually intimate relationships besides marriage essentially involve intrinsically evil actions rather understates the point. Some theologians have maintained that the marital intimacy of chaste husband and wife in Christian marriage is an analogue or type of the Eucharistic sacrifice. Sexual intimacy outside of marriage would then involve taking this holy thing (“the marital act”) and transferring it to contexts in which its holiness is not acknowledged or respect. Suppose, then, a form of Christianity which involved stealing hosts from Catholic Churches and using them somehow for selfish purposes in profane contexts: How could “ecumenism” in any ordinary sense be a possible attitude toward such a form of Christianity?
And then one wonders why Lifestyle Ecumenism is proposed as an attitude we should adopt solely toward lifestyles which involve violations of the sixth commandment. What about violations of the fifth? Racism, I suppose, as a form of hatred, is a violation of that commandment, and it is extremely common too, but should Catholics adopt “Racism Ecumenism,” and attempt to build-bridges with racists, trying to discover the good motives which lead people to be racists and embrace these things as common ground? Or what about violations of the seventh? We know that there are people whose lifestyles depend upon consistently taking what belongs to others. There is always something good even in the life of a band of thieves, the famous “honor among thieves,” which has been proverbial since Plato. Has it been a mistake for Catholics to have condemned thievery all these years, when the more effective approach would have been to praise thieves for their sense of honor?
Actually our approach in all other domains of life is to be repulsed by good in the service of bad. The more daring and cleverness that someone shows in committing adultery, the more his or her action does, and should, offend the sense of a decent person. The more skill, friendliness, good humor, and perseverance get applied in the commission of a murder, the more repugnant the evil deed. We typically do not adopt the approach of “focusing on the good” in an intrinsically evil action in any other domain of human life.
In conclusion, when we look carefully at how Cardinal Schönborn’s misguided and ill-founded analogy, we might wonder why a leading Churchman should ever have proposed it, and why, once it was articulated, his brother bishops did not immediately, as it were, shout it down.
As a father of a large family, raising children in the difficult circumstances of the present culture in the US and Europe, I find the Cardinal’s approach particularly dismaying. I want clear teaching from bishops, to back up my efforts with young persons; I want an unfashionable but needed reminder, in our time, of the imperilment of the soul and the reality of sin. In contrast, Lifestyle Evangelism looks like the rationalization of a bad outcome. The main task of the bishops, I conceive, is to teach the faith clearly and protect the flock from the depredations of the Evil One. Our bishops in the 50 years since Humanae vitae have generally failed at these tasks in the area of sexual morality. Cohabitation and the hook-up culture do not “just happen.” Two generations of Catholic children who might have grown up living chastity and modesty have been lost, taken away by faulty Catholic school systems, inadequate catechesis, cowardly preaching, and an absence of a protective spirit by our pastors. The True Pastor goes so far to keep out the wolves that he lays down his life if necessary. Lifestyle Ecumenism strikes me as a shrug of the shoulders which says it’s a fact of life that wolves take the sheep.
Michael Pakaluk is Chairman and Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University.