At the end of June the U.S. Supreme Court, by a very narrow margin, found in the U.S. Constitution a right for same sex couples to civilly marry. This is, of course, contrary to the long-standing teaching of the Catholic Church that marriage can only be contracted between one man and one woman. Bishop Joe Vasquez issued a statement following the release of the Supreme Court decision that clearly states: “Jesus taught that from the beginning marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman. We follow our Lord and will continue to teach and to act according to this truth.”
So from the Catholic point of view the union of two people of the same sex is not, and cannot be, a genuine marriage.
However, to say that the union of two people of the same sex is not a marriage is NOT to say that it is nothing. The union of two people of the same sex can still be something of worth and even be important. One has only to look and see that this is true. As pastor of a church in mid-town Manhattan for eight and a half years, and then as pastor of a church in the center of San Francisco for eight years, I was both challenged and also blessed by coming to know a number of same sex couples – both men and women, gays and lesbians. And in getting to know them I witnessed much the same thing as I witnessed in the parish’s heterosexual couples: namely respect, tolerance, support, concern, encouragement, forgiveness, growth, challenge, commitment, tenderness, fidelity, as well as the occasional harsh word, spat, impatience and the friction that inevitably accompanies two persons living together, just like I saw in heterosexual couples. I remember especially a moving, tender and convincing demonstration of fidelity as one gay man nursed and cared for his partner who eventually died from complications of AIDS. From the outside it looked a very great deal like love. And as St. John tells us, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1 JN 4:16)
This concern for the reality that is there in a same sex union is captured, I think, in the statement that Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago released on the two Supreme Court decisions at the end of June. Archbishop Cupich wrote: “It is important to note that the Catholic Church has an abiding concern for the dignity of gay persons. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” (n. 2358). This respect must be real, not rhetorical, and ever reflective of the Church’s commitment to accompanying all people. For this reason, the Church must extend support to all families, no matter their circumstances, recognizing that we are all relatives, journeying through life under the careful watch of a loving God.”
My own personal journey of coming to know same-sex couples, and discovering the life, vitality, compassion and support that are there, reminds me of an experience that Jesus had. St. Matthew in his 15th chapter tells the odd story of Jesus going out of Jewish territory to the pagan district of Trye and Sidon. Maybe Jesus wanted some rest and went where He thought He would not be recognized, where He could lay low for a bit. However, a pagan woman comes to Him and begs Him to heal her daughter. Jesus ignores her, finally stating “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” As a good Jew, Jesus knows that God’s promise is to the Jewish people, and salvation comes first to them. They are the chosen ones. Jesus does not see Himself at this point as sent to the pagans. So Jesus doesn’t want to deal with her. However the woman is persistent and won’t stop bothering Jesus and the disciples. Finally Jesus tells her, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She retorts, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Then a remarkable thing happens. Jesus changes His mind. Jesus recognizes faith in this pagan woman, probably the last place Jesus expected to find it. But Jesus is able to open up his categories and reframe His expectations and see in this woman’s faith that God is at work here too. Jesus sees that God is at work in her, though His training has not prepared Him to expect that. And so Jesus grants her wish and heals her daughter.
If Jesus could re-evaluate and change His mind, then I figured I could too.