THE BLOG
02/13/2014 12:06 pm ET | Updated Apr 15, 2014

The Catholic Church and Same-Sex Marriage: How Might Doctrine Develop?

I was in New York City the first week of February, where I was hosted by David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values. David, who was a prominent opponent of same-sex unions for several years, had a change of heart on the subject in 2012, writing in The New York Times "that the time for denigrating or stigmatizing same-sex relationships is over."

As part of his own continuing exploration of the subject, David brought me and another guest to his Institute to discuss the future of gay marriage. In the course of our conversation, I developed the lines of an argument that might help to advance the cause of gay marriage, even within the Catholic Church.

I began with the premise that Catholic moral theology ultimately rests on the foundation of an accurate understanding of the human person. In this sense, same-sex marriage is a question for the field known as "Christian anthropology." The norms and rules we live by must at a minimum not be contrary to human nature and must ideally promote a genuine understanding of human flourishing.

The prevailing anthropology of the person is grounded on a system of thought known as the "theology of the body." Insofar as it pertains to marriage, Pope John Paul developed this theology in a series of weekly reflections between September 1979 and April 1980. These reflections were later gathered into a small book and have conditioned Catholic understanding of the human personality for the last 30 years.

In this set of reflections, John Paul II proposed to study the Gospel of Matthew, 19: 4, the verse in which Jesus says to the Pharisees, "Have you not read that the Creator from the beginning made them male and female?" Seeking to understand this passage, John Paul II quickly turned his attention to the opening chapters of Genesis, where this text originally appeared. In explaining creation, the Pontiff was concerned especially with the physicality of our bodies. It is through the body that we realize our humanity. We are not disembodied. We are not bloodless abstractions. Rather, we are physical, flesh-and-blood beings.

And if it is through our bodies that we know and express our humanness, then, John Paul II continued, it is through our bodily design that we must understand our moral purpose. And, since we are mortal beings cognizant of the brevity of our lives, we must keep in mind the requirement of sexual reproduction. Maleness and femaleness -- complementarity, John Paul II called it -- thus becomes essential to marriage.

Such reasoning precluded the possibility of same-sex marriage as inconsistent with the divine purpose of creation. Indeed, the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this conclusion explicit when it denounces even same-sex inclination as "objectively disordered" because of this perceived inconsistency with the divine plan.

I proposed in my conversation that the theology of the body need not be our starting point when analyzing marriage. There are different foundational premises we might use and still remain faithful Catholics. Thus we might begin our analysis with human reason and human psychology. There are deep and strong traditions within the Catholic Church supporting each of these as starting points for reasoning about sex and marriage.

For Thomas Aquinas, the morality of human action commences with human reason. For sure, our reason is imperfect. It is not divine reason, though it shares in some measure with it since we are made in the image and likeness of God. Original sin, however, warped our intellects. Even so, Thomas insists, we might reach a progressively clearer understanding of what it means to be moral through the steady exercise of our reason. Reason is open-ended and open-minded. It never assumes the conclusions it wishes to prove. Observation, investigation, ordered, disciplined curiosity about the world and all within it -- these are legitimate methods of inquiring about our moral duties. If our scientific understanding of the person evolves, then so must our moral expectations.

And if reason offers one starting point, psychological insight provides another. Within the Catholic Church, there are few areas where psychology has come to play a more significant role than in marriage. This is especially true in cases of matrimonial dissolution -- marriage annulments, to use the familiar term.

Contemporary annulment practice rests on the premise that only persons with authentic human freedom can marry. And freedom can be impaired by any number of psychological causes. The lessons of modern psychology are then brought to bear by tribunal personnel in assessing the maturity and psychological readiness of the parties for marriage. But the question naturally arises: If psychology can be used to assess the sacramental quality of marriage, if it can be employed to deepen and enrich our understanding of human freedom, can it also be used to expand the field of those eligible for marriage?

These two starting points might be used to build an alternate ground for understanding same-sex attraction. If we rely on our reason, if our reason is open to developing scientific insight, if we look to the recent findings of psychology, then we know that same-sex attraction is part of the natural variability of human sexuality. What it means to be human, in other words, not only embraces male and female, but it may also, in some cases, include same-sex attraction. If Catholics take this line of reasoning seriously, then it becomes impossible to speak of same-sex attraction as "objectively disordered."

But what of marriage? Here, one might turn to St. Augustine's Treatise on the Goods of Marriage. In the opening sentence of this work, St. Augustine defines marriage as "friendship" -- amicitia. The human person, St. Augustine asserts, is a "social being" made that way by our "human nature" (humana natura).

To be sure, St. Augustine argues that marriage serves three great goods: procreation, unity, and fidelity. But procreation is not marriage's highest purpose. Indeed, at points St. Augustine seems positively indifferent to procreation. He counsels couples to consider voluntary abstinence from sexual intercourse.

"The better the couple are," he said, "the earlier" they will have done this.

St. Augustine answered the objection, "What if everyone sought to abstain from intercourse?" with the response that then the City of God would be at hand "and the end of the world would be hastened."

For Augustine, the true significance of marriage was not procreation, but the enduring friendship of two human beings who are innately social creatures.

If this is so, then can the meaning of marriage be widened to include same-sex unions? I think so. Still, there is a large objection that arises from within the Augustinian tradition. All intercourse, St. Augustine maintained, had to be at least theoretically open to the possibility of procreation. It is this proposition that continues to form the core of the Catholic Church's teaching on contraception.

Recognition of same-sex marriage would thus require the Catholic Church to rethink the foundations of its sexual ethics, not only where same-sex attraction is concerned, but generally. And this is a very large undertaking indeed. There are some possible avenues for development, but I am afraid that I should save those explorations for another time.