State recognition of homosexual civil unions (“gay marriages”) is now the law of the land, and the ongoing discussion has revealed that the views of various Christians on the issue are themselves varied. What I wish to look at here is not which one is correct (that has been, and is being, done ad nauseum), but rather what can be concluded from these divergent stances with respect to “the church.”
Many conservative Christians are now pointing to “the unfaithful church” as being a big part of the cause for the current state of American morality and politics. Perhaps that is a fair judgment as far as it goes, but the question is: What does it mean to be an “unfaithful church”? Does “unfaithful church” mean or “the church itself is unfaithful” or that there are “unfaithful members in the church”? (And if the latter, does it mean church members are unfaithful to their particular churches, or to Christianity?) How such a statement is taken will depend largely on how one views The Church in the first place.
Here I will argue that the Catholic Church, at least, should be exempted from this “unfaithful church” assessment (even if many of its members should not be), while Protestantism must be included (even if many of its members should not be). While there are Catholics and Protestants on both sides of the issue, their respective institutional track records (and structures) are too dissimilar to lump together.
Quick History Lesson
Many Christians now see the connection between divorce, contraception, abortion, and gay marriage. For the very idea of gay marriage to even make sense (much less be affirmed), marriage itself has to be redefined from being a permanent, covenantal, sacramental union that is ordered toward procreation to a temporary, contractual, civil union that is ordered toward personal fulfillment. Once marriage is understood in this way (which it has been since long before gay marriage was even an issue), the only difference between a heterosexual or a homosexual “union” is the members’ genders. At that point, gay marriage comes to be seen as a civil rights issue, and dissenters dismissed as mere bigots.
- Who started the “reformation” that traded the sacramental authority of the Church for the secular rule of the civil government?
- Who was it that changed the permanent covenant of marriage into a dissoluble contract?
- Who separated marriage from childbearing by allowing contraception (and even abortion)?
- Who first affirmed and later ordained practicing homosexuals?
- Who was it that began affirming and performing “gay marriages”?
It must be admitted that given the basic division in Western Christianity between Catholicism and Protestantism, the “unfaithfulness of the church” seems to be fairly one-sided. Actually, it’s completely one-sided. While the specific answers differ from question to question, there is a consistent negative answer to each of these, and it is not the Catholic Church!
Holding Fast to the Tradition?
There are, of course, many non-Catholics that have retained the traditional Christian stance on (some of) these issues. In fact, polls seem to indicate that there are a higher number of dissenting members of the Catholic Church than some of Christianity’s smaller Protestant sects. However, it is no secret that the majority of the major Protestant movements have fallen into theological and political liberalism (a situation satirized by Protestants themselves).
Even those Christians who do not identify with the Reformation per se (e.g., Baptists, Pentecostals, or Evangelicals) often hold to its most important distinctives and, like the older “confessional” Protestant groups, have disintegrated into numerous factions along conservative / liberal lines.
A Christian’s faithfulness to his religious tradition is merely accidental, however, when there is no truly binding ecclesial authority. In groups which do not recognize the binding authority of the Church, individuals are ultimately in submission only to their own private interpretations of Scripture (aka, personal opinions). This modus operandi was laid out by Protestantism’s founder:
“Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me.” (Martin Luther, Diet of Worms)
The problem is that in any system which affirms only a document as its source of authority, the real authority becomes that of the document’s interpreters. (And with SCOTUS, we’ve seen how easy it is for personal inclinations to influence interpretation!). Thus, it is to be expected that as the culture shifts, so will “the church” (if by “the church” one means “all who identify as Christians”).
Meanwhile, those popes and councils that Luther found so untrustworthy have remained consistent on marriage and sexual ethics for 2,000 years. Catholicism’s teachings on homosexuality are that homosexuals are to be treated with as much dignity and respect as heterosexuals, and – also like heterosexuals – are called to refrain from acting on illicit sexual desires. This teaching is based on both natural philosophy and supernatural theology – not just one’s interpretation of the Bible. Further, Catholic teaching is consistent with the historic Christian tradition.
Moreover, the Catholic Church’s position is clear concerning the politics of the issue under discussion: in those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty. Despite the hopes of liberal idealists, the Catholic position will not change (indeed, it cannot change). The Catholic Church is not run by a pragmatic board that has to be mindful of the political ramifications of its positions, nor by the popular vote of its laity. It is also not headed by an individual whose paycheck is dependant on keeping the big givers happy. Rather, the Catholic teaching is that,
“In order to preserve the Church in the purity of the faith handed on by the apostles, Christ who is the Truth willed to confer on her a share in his own infallibility. By a ‘supernatural sense of faith’ the People of God, under the guidance of the Church’s living Magisterium, ‘unfailingly adheres to this faith.'” (Catechism of the Catholic Church)
Only in a movement where personal dissent is not only tolerated, but institutionalized should it be blamed for the “unfaithfulness” of its individual members. Whereas for a Catholic to affirm positions contrary to dogmatic Church tradition is to be un-Catholic, for a Protestant to do so is just to be Protestant (i.e., following the Protestant paradigm). Thus, while particular Protestant groups should not be assigned the views of unrepresentative Protestants in particular, Protestantism is rightfully judged by the trends within the movement.
On the other hand, because individual Catholics do not represent Catholicism (either particularly or generally) unless they are in agreement with its official teachings, it is illicit to judge Catholicism by unfaithful Catholics (regardless of their status or number). Thus, whatever causation is attributed to “the unfaithful church” in the current debate, it is not assignable to the Catholic Church, for one cannot go against the Catholic Church’s dogmatic directives as a faithful Catholic.
*Note that in the SCOTUS decision, the only judges who voted “Nay” on the infamous gay marriage decision were Catholic. The two Catholic judges who voted “Yea” (one an Obama appointee, the other a long-time homosexual activist from California) acted in direct opposition to the Church’s teachings regarding politician’s roles.