Friday, October 31, 2008

A question from a reader.

Father, that was a lovely sermon, but I feel like there's something missing. Your own illustrations suggest that the first place most of us learn love is from our parents. What are we to make then, of a spousal relationship that is, of its nature, unable to produce children?

I know that there are infertile heterosexual couples whose love is also unable to produce children.

And I know that adoptive parents love their children every bit as much as biological parents love theirs.

But I don't think that's enough of a response. I think there's a real theological question to grapple with here--namely, what is the purpose of marriage and sex? And I don't think that we can, of our own accord, forcibly divorce the procreative purpose from the unitive purpose. We would as well remove our souls from our bodies--as if those were two different things.

I don't hate gay people. My aunt and godmother is gay and I love her. And I love the child -- my cousin -- that her partner gave birth to and she adopted. He is as much my cousin as the biological children of any of my other aunts.

But I just can't see how a relationship that cannot produce children, and is not even of the sort that produces children, is a marriage. Please help me to understand your reasoning.

God bless you -- you are in my prayers.

Ben asks a very sincere and authentic question. I believe one which deserves a considered answer. First, if you were to enter the sacristy of your local parish church and access the Rite of Marriage book which is authorized by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, you would discover something interesting in the marriage rite. All references to children are contained in red parenthesis. Why? So that the bishop, priest or deacon officiating at the wedding may easily omit such references in the case of a couple which is past "child bearing years". Obviously, it would appear absurd to include such references for a couple, say in their mid sixties. The Church marries people who cannot reproduce and has done so for centuries.

Why? The answer to this is rather obvious. Not all married couples will produce children. Are their marriages any less valid? The practice of the Church clearly suggest that the answer is that their marriages are equally valid. That some couples will not reproduce does not spell the end of the human race. Don't worry, God will bless many marriages with children.

The other question which is raised here is the purpose of sex. This is a great question. Obviously, one of the purposes of sex is reproduction; however, if marriage is permitted for couples who are incapable of reproduction and the Church currently does permit such marriages then, the Church also tacitly admits that there must be some other reason for sex other than reproduction. If this were not the case then, sex for females past the age of menopause would be considered "sinful." This "other" reason is called unitive by theologians.

The unitive end of sex, as the name suggests is a bonding. A tender union of the two people. Incidentally, this gives us a new insight into sex. It is good. It is not to be feared. It is not shameful. It was designed by the Creator. Whether the sex produces physical life or not, it may contribute to a union of love and life, which is the very definition of marriage. Heterosexual couples in their "golden years" understand this so too, do same sex couples.

So, if this is all true for heterosexual couples incapable of physical reproduction then, why would it be untrue of same sex couples who are equally incapable of physical reproduction?

I want to thank Ben for his question. Remember, the traditional definition of theology, is faith seeking understanding. Since theology is the study of God, we will never fully know God but, asking honest questions is a way of coming to know God better.


Fran said...

I must say that I think that this was a great question from Ben and your reply in the post is great too.

Your voice sounds different in this post - I hear the depth of oyur faith and of your knowledge, your wisdom speaking.

That is not to say that such things have been absent, but rather your voice on this blog has been developing. You were after all thrust into a particular spotlight rather quickly. Not to mention you have put yourself at great risk...

I digress, in any event, you say something here that really struck me, "Remember, the traditional definition of theology, is faith seeking understanding. Since theology is the study of God, we will never fully know God but, asking honest questions is a way of coming to know God better."

If that is not the life of faith, then what is?

As someone as deeply fervent of regarding inclusion as I am of my faith in general (and as an RC you know how hard that is)I struggle.

Asking honest questions of a loving God who excludes no one is really the way as I see it.

It is always about the mystery of the questions despite the press of the certitude of answers.

barbarab said...

Father Geoff,

Bless you for that reply. After more than 20m years in an abusive (but potentially fruitful) marriage I divorced and, ultimately remarried. While I am past child bearing, my husband's love has been, for me, a healing vision of the love of God that still has the power to move me to tears after more than 5 years together. You are continually in my prayers. Preach on!

The Honourable Husband said...

What is the purpose of eating? To sustain life, obviously. Is it a sinful to eat something tasty?

What is the purpose of having legs? To walk, I dare say. Is it a sin to use these legs to dance?

It's pretty clear that one of the reasons we are placed on this planet, was to give joy to others and create happiness. It's an important part of a noble, dignified and reverent life.

Two people who create happiness in each others arms, and promise to make each other feel safe and loved, potentially have more joy to give their fellow human beings.

"Sacrament". The word, of course, implies sacrifice. But one also celebrates a sacrament.

The joy you give to another human being often involves sacrifice. Any long-term spouse can tell you that!

But the pleasure you share isn't just there for its own sake. It becomes a celebration of your higher purpose. And it is simply a lie to say that a gay or lesbian couple has no higher purpose than a straight one.

Rev. Richard Thornburgh said...

Great answer to an often-heard question.
(The word verification required for me to post this comment is "miffsot". Sounds a bit like a nasty infection. Hope I don't catch anything!)

Andrew M said...

Fr. Geoff you have answered these questions with the utmost thought, theological base, and care. As I talked to my own pastor on this issue a month ago, This was where a standstill came into our conversation. My response is that when I am in a loving relationship, it is not just about procreation of the species but about love. But when one enters into marriage I still believe that it is a responsibility to accept children into the home however they come. Whether it be by adoption, or by a family emergency, or other ways. A loving household is where children should be raised.

This comment digresses from the original question, but many of the arguments against Prop 8 and Prop 102 here in Arizona is that it "protects the family." This means a procreative marriage is the only way to go. There are many families of all sorts, not one traditional way.

The advertisements here show many different families but they are all traditionally nuclear. One man, one women, and children. For me this is a distorted utopia, and not a reality. I have been raised by one dad and two mothers because of the death of the first one. I am not worse off when my father remarried, but I think blessed by that. The Catholic Church didn't frown when my dad raised my sibling and I alone because it "wasn't traditional."
The Church also blessed his second marriage even though it was a blended family, and not "ideal." One concept that was constant in my life was it is life of loving parents. That is what counts. Families are all different. Whether it be how many children they have, how they came to be a family, the Church should look at the blessings of loving parents for the "ideal" way to raise a family, whether they have relations to love or to procreate whether they be heterosexual or homosexual.

Anonymous said...

Bless you. A former seminarian, I have watched as almost all of the Vatican II reforms have been erased. You have been a reminder that pluralism is alive and well. The Bishops claim they are only advising on a moral issue. I wonder how many of the Bishops truly reflected on the first reading for the 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Exodus 22:20 - 26). Ironic that it would occur so close to election day.

Julie said...

In "To Set Our Hope on Christ", the Episcopal Church writes this about our understanding of the purposes of marriage:

"The Protestant reformer Martin Bucer,
commenting on Cranmer’s 1549 rite, argued that “three causes for matrimony are enumerated, that is children, a
remedy, and mutual help, and I should prefer what is placed third among the causes for marriage might be in the fi rst place, because it is fi rst.”17 In 1949 the Episcopal Church listed, in the Declaration of Intent, companionship as the fi rst purpose of marriage. In 1975 the draft of the English prayer book and then in 1979 the Episcopal Book of
Common Prayer listed companionship as the fi rst purpose of marriage. In the latter book “mutual joy” and “the help
and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity” was followed by “and, when it is God’s will, the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of
the Lord.”"

Actually, the whole document makes such a clear case for our understanding of human sexuality. It is quite good and I'd recommend it to you if you haven't already read it. You can download a .pdf file at

Marcos said...

Father Geoff,

I would like to thank you for your posts. I just learned tonight about your opposition sermon to Prop 8, and the great price that you have been forced to pay for your courage.

You have become an inspiration to me.

Thank you.


June Butler said...

Fr. Geoff, what an excellent and thoughtful answer to a very good question.


I had the privilege of studying the Theology of Marriage under Fr Ted Mackin of Santa Clara U, back in the mid 1960s & then came back as an Alumna to the Mission Parish there in the 1970s.
His favorite sermon topic was the Hidden Gem of Humanae Vitae -- "Marriage is a mutual and reciprocal relationship, oriented to the ... nurture of children". All subsequent popes have said that the teaching of this encyclical is just a step below infallibility, right??? Notice the order of the phrasing --
#1 point was the RELATIONSHIP between the spouses, # 2 was the NURTURE of children -- & he didn't mean only biological children. He spoke also about the step-, half-, adopted-, fostered- & honorary neighborhood- children as well, being part of the family, so everyone could be potential partners, IF they were capable of mature, adult, responsible love.
He felt that all adults should have an openess to helping raise the children in our society, since the kids would one day take their place in it.
Why? Basic self-interest -- the older adults, when they no longer ran things, would have to live with the results!
As he also pointed out --- "God chose the Holy Family in which to raise Jesus, yet it was NOT A NUCLEAR FAMILY! So ALL families have the potential to be holy!"
That's my rercollection, straight from the Jesuits!