Because the Catholic Position on Marriage is the Only One that Ever Made Sense to Me

When I was 13 and Dad sat me down for Birds and Bees: The Advanced Course, I remember thinking, “Hunh?! Three years ago, he taught me about sex between a man and woman. I get that. The bodies fit together. God engineered it that way. But man and man? Woman and woman? What fits what?”

I report this 45 years later not to sit in angry judgment on anyone. I have friends who are homosexual. In professional theater, which I thought might be my profession when I was all of 17—either that or Episcopal minister—I became aware that there were many people of the homosexual persuasion. (We have since learned that the line does not stop at Episcopal minister, or Catholic priest, for that matter.) To work in theater, you had to work with homosexual people, and some of these people became my friends, for whom I still admit a certain fondness.

Fine. But with the innocence of a 13-thirteen-year-old boy utterly clueless about sex, I had this simple thought when first confronted with the notion of homosexuality as carnal action: What fits what? (1) I had a fundamental, innocent belief in God. (2) I believed that God made the world and that the world therefore is well engineered. (3) I could not understand the engineering of homosexuality. Ergo, God did not intend this to be a normal form of human interaction.

I still think that 13-year-old was on to something.

I was reminded of this last evening when I ran into a former client of mine, or rather I thought of the connection upon waking up this morning. Since 1988, I have worked—on again, off again, and now on again—with elderly people helping them write their memoirs. There’s more about this on my relatively undeveloped blog about that. Anyhow, I ran into a former client I’ll call Mr. Smith last night, and the encounter was a testament to marriage in the one-man, one-woman, one-life Catholic sense of the institution.

I have worked on over fifty memoirs since 1988. Mr. Smith’s was unique because it was not just Mr. Smith’s memoir but Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s memoir. When his son introduced me to him and I proposed the idea of writing his memoir, Mr. Smith demurred. Because it is my business to do so, I pressed the matter. Finally, I understood that Mr. Smith had no objection to publishing his memoir, so long as Mrs. Smith was an equal partner in the work.

So we invented a new form of memoir, in which the couple alternated chapters. First her ancestors, then his. First her birth and upbringing, then his. The two strands approached one another (the families spent summers on adjoining properties) until the book arrived at her chapter about meeting him and his about meeting her. This is a long way of saying that Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s marriage was one of the most beautiful I have ever observed, and I think their braided memoir was a proper testament to that beauty.

Mrs. Smith died a few years ago, and I ran into Mr. Smith last evening at a book event. Mr. Smith is relatively frail now, walking on a stick, but still radiating an unsurpassed kindness. You run into someone who knows Mr. Smith, and the first words out of their mouth usually are, “He is the nicest man!”

Mr. Smith is an old-line Yankee and therefore probably of the Protestant persuasion, though the Smiths’ religion never came up in their memoir. I wouldn’t doubt that his kindness is rooted in faith. But working closely with the Smiths, as I was privileged to do, I also observed an extraordinary kindness between them, a mutual respect as much him for her as her for him. They held hands in my presence. I’m sure they often held hands.

When I saw Mr. Smith last night, I recalled Mrs. Smith and told him what an inspiration their marriage had been to me in my marriage to Katie. I told him that Katie and I are celebrating our 25th next week and that it is my fond hope we will be as happy at our 50th as I observed the Smiths to have been in their later years. With simple words and a quiet smile, he acknowledged his love for Mrs. Smith.

In the old Boston library that hosted the book event, I noticed that Mr. Smith was seated behind a column, and I asked him if he didn’t want help moving to a seat with a better view. No, he said, he preferred this seat, because it was “close to my family.” He nodded sideward, and I saw then that his son and daughter-in-law were seated directly across the aisle in the sold-out room. I was touched by this. I knew he was referring to a closeness that was more than physical.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith are for me another confirmation of the fundamental wisdom of traditional marriage. In making a point, it’s usually good to look at the opposite, and I’ve tried to do that here. As a 13-year-old, I thought that homosexuality involves faulty engineering. As a 58-year-old, I observed that the opposite—especially in a committed, lifelong relationship—makes all the sense in the world. I think it always will.

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  • It is a tragedy that the RC Church has not moved beyond its 13-year-old-boy mechanistic understanding of gender. Homosexuality is not a "persuasion." It is a biological and psychological state, as God-given as heterosexuality, and as capable of informing a life-long, blessed and committed marriage as your example above. The Episcopal Church (where I reside within the one holy catholic and apostolic church) is slowly moving toward a recognition of this, lagging far behind our Unitarian and UCC brethren who have long since opened their hearts and arms and doors to people along the whole spectrum of gender expression. Yes, there are inspirational heterosexual marriages. And yes the RC Church is full of amazing things that you so beautifully chronicle here. But its fundamentalist gender hermeneutic which contributes to the suffering of the gay lesbian and transgender people and which excludes people like me with two X chromosomes from ever being a deacon, priest or bishop, is YIMnot a Roman Catholic. And why I am blessed to be in a church that includes Desmond Tutu, Bishop Gene Robinson and my own priest — our newly installed and beloved rector –who, in a few days, will be giving birth to her second child.

  • EPG

    I am sure you will see a lot of e-mail about this post, and much of it will not be nice (which is one of the reasons I like your policy of holding comments until after you review them). I think you (and the RCC) are right, and Paula (and the ECUSA) are wrong, which is one of the many reasons YIM no longer and Episcopalian (although there are still reasons YIM not [yet] Catholic).The 13 year old Webster, who wondered, “What fits what?” only had part of the picture, however. Because any man who has spent much time really paying attention to women, and any women who has spent much time really paying attention to men, should be able to recognize that men and women are fundamentally different in ways beyond external genitalia, beyond our chromosomal makeup, in fact beyond the physical. A blog is too short to describe this, let alone a response to a blog, but twenty-plus years of marriage, and the raising of two daughters, have convinced me beyond a doubt that this is the case. And I should have realized this much earlier – my own obtuseness and the prevailing ideology of my day blinded me to much that is obvious.One does not need to be a fundamentalist to recognize that Scripture, in Genesis, gives us a picture the two sexes as complementary components of humanity. “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them,” and “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (emphasis added) (both quotes from the NRSV). In fact, the spiritual truth of this becomes more apparent if one is not a fundamentalist, if one takes Genesis not as factual historical reporting, but a story designed to illuminate fundamental truths (a myth in the fullest sense of the word). [BTW, I would like to observe that the term “fundamentalist” has a particular historical meaning, relating to the publication of, and adherence to, a series of propositions set forth by certain Protestants in early 20th century America. Neither the RCC nor the Orthodox churches can possibly be fundamentalist, and yet they have a far different view of how to respond to Scripture and Tradition than does the current hierarchy of the Episcopal Church, or (apparently) Paula. The term “fundamentalist” should not be used merely to describe those more traditionally minded than one’s self.]So, yes, the model is marriage as one man and one woman for life. And yes, we regularly fall short of that model. How that came about is described in chapter 3 of Genesis (and, no, I do not necessarily think it had to have occurred literally as described – I am not a fundamentalist, and am fully comfortable with a non-literal interpretation of the biblical account of the Fall). Homosexual attraction is not “God-given.” Nor is the common impulse towards promiscuity (of which I certainly was guilty, especially in my teens and twenties). Nor is a fascination with pornography. Nor is our increasing acceptance of divorce and remarriage as a routine event (I confess I find the Eastern Orthodox approach to re-marriage after divorce more sensible than most others). Of course, we should respond to our homosexual neighbor with the same love and charity that we would expect from others as we wrestle with our own temptations, sins and failings (both sexual and non-sexual). But that does not mean that we should not speak the truth.

  • Anonymous

    I rarely post an anonymous comment, but I need to in this case because I don't want to reveal any identities. I read this post this morning after just last night encountering a wonderful 10 year old child in my catechism class. She has a girl's name but she asked me to call her by a shorter version of her name that usually us given to a boy. On her name card, she wrote her name and then, over the top, in light letters covering the whole thing, she wrote "BOY". I am a happily married Catholic husband, and, like you and Chesteron, appreciate the freedom within the truths of the Church. At the same time, I struggle mightily with the complexity of gender issues. I have a hard time imagining the sweet 10-year-old in my religious education class in a state of sin over her uncertain sexuality. I also have several friends who, after years of fierce internal struggle, are now openly homosexual. These are people I've loved and cared about for years, and know how much they love me, their families, and those around them. Yet they struggle with their gender. I have no problem separating the sinner from the sin, and loving the former and not the latter, but I sincerely wonder whether free will is involved here at all. I'm no expert on the science or research but I know my Catholic faith doesn't shy away from science or the truth it might reveal. With little doubt, science is informed by faith and vice versa, and I'd love to learn from those who might know more about the genetics of gender so I can provide the most loving response possible to my friends and the sweet 10-year-old student sincerely struggling with her self.

  • Long time lurker, first time poster. Great blog, by the way! I have found it very edifying, Webster.First, about me. I'm a married father of three cherubs under the age of 7. No. 4 should have arrived last week, but we lost him prior to birth earlier this year. I've been Catholic for 8+ years, after a vagabond Christian upbringing – baptized Methodist and confirmed as a Episcopalian. I currently teach the adult faith formation at my parish, and I am an applicant for the permanent diaconate in my bible-belt diocese.To Anonymous – please do not trouble your mind over your young charge being in a state of sin. I would say it's more likely that, at 10 years of age, she goofing off than seriously informing the world that she believes herself to be a boy. Even still, if this child is not playing around and is actually homosexual, you know (ostensibly since you're teaching catechism to kids) that merely being homosexual in orientation is not sinful.To Paula – there's so much I want to say about your post, but I will confine myself to one point. As a member of the Episcopal Church, you say that "reside within the one holy catholic and apostolic church." I came from that tradition, and my parents continue to belong to their local Episcopal Church. Since I have this same conversation with them on a somewhat regular basis, I feel that I have at least a minimum level of competency to discuss it with you. I find the stance of the Episcopalians, that we are together members of some invisible Church reality, to be wholly unpersuasive. That you can be in invisible unity, but not visible unity, and have it mean basically the same thing is a direct contradiction to the traditional understanding of our Christian faith and what God did for us by becoming man.Our Christian faith is by its very nature Incarnational. We believe that in the greatest mystery in all of history that the creator of the universe humbled himself and entered His creation as one of us. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father." (John 1) God himself was invisible, but for our good and for our salvation, he came to His creatures and made Himself visible and tangible. Also for our good, He established a Church, a real visible collection of believers vested with His authority, through which we have access to salvific graces in the sacraments. Like the Incarnation, the sacraments use matter (oil, water, bread, wine, laying of hands, etc.) to make invisible realities visible and tangible to us. Humanity, in its weakness, needs the visible along with the invisible. Church unity works in the same way.St. Paul tells us in I Corinthians that we are the mystical Body of Christ. We are connected to each other in very much the same way that my finger is connected to my hand. In fact, when in actual spiritual communion, our connection and unity is much more real than the physical connection between my finger and hand. With Christ as our Head and we as His Body…it's a reality that is impossible for us to fully comprehend as limited finite creatures. My point in writing all of this is not to attack you, Paula, but to illustrate the importance of real, physical, visible unity. The Anglican / Episcopalian Churches have many exterior trappings (smells, bells, music, evensong, etc.) that appear on the surface to indicate a unity with apostolic Catholicism, but many of the beliefs of our two Churches are not harmonious. To feel comfortable and rest easy with merely invisible unity as you see it is to refuse to do the heavy lifting required to identify and work out those issues that keep us visibly divided. And in the end, I think it is at its root a denial of the mystery, meaning and importance of the Incarnation. Our unity is meant to be visible so that the world may know that God is one.

  • Brady

    Anonymous,Your 10 year old child that you describe may well have gender issues. You say you cannot believe she is in sin, and you are correct. Having gender issues or same sex attraction does not constitute sin. What does constitute sin is homosexual activity. A person who cannot overcome same-sex attraction is simply called to celibacy. People think that is too harsh, but they forget that the Church also requires celibacy from every other single male or female in the Church, which is obviously millions, and many of them are never married. Practicing homosexual sex is grave matter as is pre-marital heterosexual sex. People focus on the Church's position against homosexual sex and assume they are intolerant and discriminating, they forget about pre-marital sex. The case of the girl you describe may be confusing, but I cannot help but think that these scenarios are multiplied exponentially in a culture like ours where everyone tries to blur the lines between male and female and make them the same.

  • No, Skeeton, not "members of some invisible church reality," but members, all of us, of the Body of Christ, though the salvific graces of the sacraments — Baptism, Eucharist. And, yes, I know, the RC Church has declared Anglican and Episcopal Holy Orders as "invalid" just as it has declared gay and lesbian people "disordered," but I find those human, temporal declarations unpersuasive and suspect that, if I could return to earth in 100 years, I would find them expunged from the canon in favor of a wider, more loving, more fraternal and more merciful reading of scripture and configuration and conception of Christ's Body on earth. Father Tobias Haller's "Reasonable and Holy" is a beautiful example of such a reading.I would venture that the visible rift in the one holy catholic and apostolic church is not so much perpetuated by Episcopalians unwilling to "work out the issues" but by the fact that in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church there can't be any "working out" that falls short of embracing positions such as "no women priests" and "homosexuals are disordered" — positions that many of us find unsupported by scripture and tradition. And I find your conclusion that, because of this, that Episcopalians deny "the mystery, meaning and importance of the Incarnation" to be a puzzling logical leap. In the Episcopal church, people who hold widely disparate views — both on matters of adiaphora and on matters of core doctrine — kneel side by side at the altar rail and receive the Eucharist. All baptised Christians are invited to partake, in honor of Christ's own amazingly broad and hospitable table fellowship. The Eucharist is a Mystery before which I can't imagine any stance besides silence, adoration, humility and thanksgiving, and pray for the day when we can all be one.

  • Anonymous

    There is truth and beauty in celibacy, no doubt, and blurring the lines does seem to be popular. Nonetheless, the call to Christ (to love yourself and your neighbor) must be very challenging for those so at odds with (their) nature. How easy it is to declare the simplicity of celibacy and how difficult it is for us to be loving enough that someone who is homosexual can find comfort in celibacy. If we all were truly loving Catholics and Christians, we might find more happy, celibate homosexuals. That there are many homosexuals for millenia is a fact, yet they are ostrocized and hated by so many. That's hardly Catholic or Christian. So, yes, separate the sin from the sinner, but it must be more than words and the love must come clearly and strongly, or instead of peaceful celibacy we'll continue the intolerance we all have wrought.

  • Fr. Eric

    It would be interesting to hear comments from African Episcopalians, or Muslims on the issue of homosexuality. Will there be any American Episcopalians at the end of this century?

  • Anonymous

    Paula,If you are at all open to or interested in learning more about why women can't be priests, Peter Kreeft (a philosophy professor at BC, and apologist) has these lectures online that are pretty good. As always, there's a method to the madness :)

  • Paula,I would venture that the visible rift in the one holy catholic and apostolic church is not so much perpetuated by Episcopalians unwilling to "work out the issues"Some would like to lay the blame for this particular rift at the feet of the Anglican Communion for being "unwilling to work out the issues" and others at the feet of the Roman Communion for being "unwilling to accept anything less than theological capitulation," but I don't think this is a matter of blame. There is the simple reality that Catholicism holds a vision of unity that includes theological and credal unity, while the Anglican Communion holds a vision of unity that focuses instead on tolerating and even embracing theological and credal differences.In the Episcopal church, people who hold widely disparate views — both on matters of adiaphora and on matters of core doctrine — kneel side by side at the altar rail and receive the Eucharist.And so I think that is really one of the things that is at the core of it all. Jesus tells us that He wishes us to be one as He and the Father are one. Yet this position makes disunity a virtue. For while these people of disparate beliefs may kneel side by side, they do not join in full Communion with each other, do not join in full unity.And that is why Skeeton can be lead to say that Episcopalians deny "the mystery, meaning and importance of the Incarnation." If one of the key elements of the Incarnation is to bring us into union with Jesus and with each other, then to deny the importance of full and real unity within the Church is to deny that aspect of the importance and mystery of the Incarnation.

  • Anonymous

    Paula, Truth is universal…it doesn't change to suit our needs or wants. Therefore, what God has explicitly condemned (fornication, homosexual relations, bestiality, lust) is always and uniformly condemned. No matter of hemming and hawing can change the Unchangeable. An authority no less than Scripture states that God is unchanging. If God is unchanging, so are His laws.The Anglican Communion is not the same church that was founded by the apostles. By declaring marriage soluble, and ordination open to women, and approving of homosexuality, it essentially ceased to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic.