There are two things I am clear about amidst all the angst and mud-slinging that passes for discussion of sexual ethics in the contemporary Catholic Church. First, that we cannot begin to say anything useful theologically concerning sex and sexuality until we have a decent philosophical understanding of human sexuality, which must of necessity be informed by our best scientific and psychological accounts of human beings and by the diverse experiences of our fellow human beings. Sexual fideism is no more attractive than any other kind. We, as a Church, palpably lack such a philosophical understanding at the present moment. Second, and perhaps more controversially, it is singularly unfortunate that the most heated debate around these issues in the English-speaking world is taking place in America, a country whose background puritan culture has a tendency to feed into the Catholic Church, issuing in a trenchantly defended and overly propositional form of Christianity. More settled expressions of the catholica are better able to shrug their shoulders and move on.
One thing about Christian truth, including whatever that truth might turn out to be with respect to sexuality, is that it doesn’t depend on us. It does require us to anxiously defend it against all comers, as though it were some fragile thing in constant need of our protection. Against this, the gospel of last week’s solemnity reminds us of the good news that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. This reassurance should both prick our pomposity and give us permission to relax.
In any case, the idea that truth requires our constant interventions on its behalf against pervasive falsehood really only makes sense if we are understanding Christian truth as solely a matter of words: of saying and thinking the right things. Now, this is deeply important, but it is not the whole truth about truth. Christian truth is also communicated by actions and ways of living; these show, in ways that mere words never could, who Christ is and what it is that he has done for us.
It is for this reason that the quite disgraceful decree of Bishop Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, denying funeral rites to people in same-sex unions, is a crime against Christian truth. It communicates a lack of mercy, a lack of compassion, and a coldness in the face of human tragedy. It also, to my mind, betrays a bizarre theology of death and funereal liturgy, but that is a secondary matter: the issue here is what is being shown, not what is said. The Church, the fundamental sacrament of Jesus’ presence until he comes again, is being compelled by one of its pastors to retreat from those in need of its prayers and ministry. There is, according to the gospels, precedent: the disciples sending the children away, the Pharisee’s criticism of the woman anointing Jesus’ feet. In these cases those who would keep people away from Jesus were met with his rebuke. In the case of Bishop Paprocki, I can’t but hope that a similar rebuke is forthcoming from Rome.
As it is, a rebuke will certainly be forthcoming from the parents, lovers, brothers, sisters, friends, and children who will be denied the comfort, at an already distressing time, of commending their loved ones to God in the context of a Catholic funeral. They are mourning children of God, created in his image and redeemed by his Son: these, along with those mourning them, deserve respect and prayer. And they deserve not to be treated as pawns in a tawdry ecclesiastical version of the US’s culture wars.