George Weigel, in his book The Truth of Catholicism, recalls how former Cardinal and Archbishop of New York, John J. O’Connor, was frequently vilified for upholding the Christian teaching against homosexuality. Along with other vulgar epithets, St. Patrick’s Cathedral was called “that house of walking swastikas on Fifth Avenue” by his enemies. While refusing to deny Church teaching, the late Cardinal also lived up to the Gospel’s insistence on charity, sacrifice, and solidarity with the sick and the poor: he “regularly visited one of the hospices sponsored by the archdiocese to comfort, counsel with, and change the beadpans of dying AIDS patients.” Clear defense of truth is not inconsistent with love, care, and compassion.
To say that same-sex unions can neither receive the blessing of God nor the Church is not born of hatred or ill-will; it is not unloving, nor lacking compassion, nor lacking in pastoral sensitivity. It is a statement of fact, a fact consistent with Jewish, Christian, Catholic, papal and natural law teaching. To lead people to the natural and theological truth of how God has created men, women, and marriage is an act of pastoral and compassionate charity. St. John Henry Newman’s life and writings also abide squarely within these traditions, although it is useful to start at the very beginning.
The book of Genesis narrates God’s pronouncement that all is made “good,” except man, who is made “very good.” Adam marvels at Eve in a manner he cannot marvel at anything else under the sun; true flesh of his flesh and bone of his bones, woman and man together are perfectible, very good companions who together manifest the image and likeness of God. It is notable that in Genesis 2 this companionship, this perfectible unity in and through the diversity of man and woman, is part of the description of marriage as the unique way in which man and woman together reflect the glory of God by their mutual commitment: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife; and they shall be one flesh” (Gen. 2:6).
Although Genesis 1 does not narrate the formation of Eve from the rib of Adam, it still clearly speaks of the creation of marriage and of “man and woman” together as that uniquely human phenomenon possessing and reflecting the glory of God. In the same breath, the same poetic sentence, the author of Genesis says God made man “in His own image,” and that He made them “male and female” (Gen. 1:27). The next verse contains what might be called the primal blessing of marriage, the word “blessing” meaning in Old English etymology simply to consecrate, to make holy, or to give thanks, the giving of a divine gift accompanied by a spiritual state of joy or well-being at being able to receive the gift: “And God blessed them, and said unto them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion [lordship or stewardship] over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’” Everything else in creation, animals and plants, soil and water, is given to man to tend, keep, eat, and govern. It is notable that Genesis 1 indicates that such governorship is not only a divine blessing, but is given to humanity in a nuptial context: the married pair of “male and female,” bearers together of the “image and likeness of God,” together are commissioned and blessed to be Lords and Ladies of creation. Thus it is that Genesis 1 concludes: surveying all things, God pronounces them “very good,” a kingly and queenly married couple governing and possessing the power to perfect the “good” creation (Gen. 1:31).
God’s primal blessing upon marriage between one man and one woman is deeply interwoven with the natural and supernatural flourishing of the cosmos, the ordering of our natural state and possession of a supernatural orientation. Such is, in sum, the Judeo-Christian vision of the blessing of marriage, which Newman would vigorously defend if he were alive today. In conformity with 2,000 years of Church teaching and 20th century papal writings, he would 1) affirm that only marriages which conform with God’s natural ordering of the cosmos can be given the gift of a ‘blessing,’ and 2) exhort us as Catholic leaders and laity to remember our duty to bring the Gospel to the nations not by soft-pedaling around gravely disordered sins, but by boldly teaching the nations of the real difference between sin and righteousness. We do no one favors by blessing what is actually sinful; it simply cannot be done, and the eternal peril of souls is at stake. Grace builds upon nature; it cannot contravene or modify it.
Newman, who enjoyed deep and loving relationships with his own family and friends, reflects on the gifts we are to each other in his early sermon “Love of Relations and Friends.” He notes that we cannot claim to love unless we are able to love those closest to us; the philanthropist who cannot love and serve his spouse or children or parents, in all their virtues and flaws, cannot really claim the name of Christian, and does not really exercise charity. This, Newman thinks, is God’s “plan of Divine Providence to ground what is good and true” in our nature. How we are to those closest to us will become how we are to God. It is in the context of family and intimate relationships that we recognize ourselves as “accountable beings” with duties to others. This natural experience leads us on to the supernatural experience of duty to God, our Creator and Supreme Moral Governor, who has created us to know, love, and serve Him. God has created and ordered our social, familial, and sexual natures in a particular way that is analogous to, but distinct from, our higher call to be in relation to God.
In addition, Newman’s practice of collaboration with married men and women in his work at the Oratory school speaks volumes about his vision of the high dignity of matrimony to raise and educate children. To a strong degree, Newman saw his own role in founding and maintaining the Oratory school for boys (1859-60) as ancillary to and supportive of the parents’ primary duty to form their children to be intellectual and well-formed Catholics in an English society still largely hostile to the Roman Catholic Church (see Andrew Nash’s “Idea of a School”). Newman instinctively honored the natural order and divine blessing God has placed upon married persons to be fruitful and multiply.
But we face today something Newman did not face in his own day: a concerted attempt to contravene not only divine law, but also natural law, and even further, an attempt by some to validate the violation of natural law with divine blessing. Newman, however, would be in complete agreement with the providential teachings of Sts. Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II, the latter of whom notes that Jesus Christ himself, when asked a question about marriage and divorce, appealed to the creation account in upholding the indissolubility of marriage (Matthew 19:4). Christ teaches us, when inquiring about the nature of marriage, to look at how God arranged that nature in creating the cosmos. When we look with careful eyes at that creation, both in human experience and in the Genesis account, we find that there are two unchangeable aspects to human marriage upheld magisterially and infallibly by papal teaching, especially that of Paul VI: the unitive and the procreative, the duty to be a total gift of self to one’s spouse, and the duty to produce and educate children [or at least to remain ‘open to’ such possibility in the case of, for example, infertility].
We are made for love, for spiritual union, for the total gift of self. But, having bodies, we are also made to honor that gift of the body and to remain “open to life,” as the English translation of Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae puts it. However, philosopher and translator of Theology of the Body Michael Waldstein makes an important clarification: when Paul VI taught against contraception, his appeal was to the nature of marriage and the marital act, not an appeal to merely decreed Church law. In other words, it is not that married couples ought not to disconnect the unitive from the procreative in their intimacy; it is that they by nature cannot; the unitive and the procreative are so deeply intertwined as to be inextricable, and contraception is a futile attempt to militate against the full gift of sex, the gift of the mutual possibilities inherent in the male and female body. Paul VI correctly predicted that use of contraceptives would lead to dissatisfying relationships and a degradation of the male-female union, since it attempts to contravene against the basic reality of human married nature: the intertwined gift of unity and procreation.
The phrase “open to life” was translated from the Italian aperto; but the original Latin of Humanae Vitae has a deeper nuance: “ad vitam humanam procreandam per se destinatus” suggests that the marital act is “through itself directed to procreation” as a matter of nature, not a matter of ought. As Waldstein puts it in The Glory of the Logos in the Flesh, “Each meaning [the procreative and the unitive] is realized not only together with the other but the one through the other. The indissolubility of the two meanings [unitive and procreative] is a matter of fact, not of ought. The point is not that the connection should not be dissolved. It cannot.”
A similar truth must be said about the blessing of same-sex unions: it is not that they ought not be blessed; it is a simple fact that they cannot. The unitive-procreative gift of marriage is simply never present between two men or between two women. There is no marriage, and no union, to speak of; there is no capacity with which the pair may receive a blessing upon their union and their procreation, since true union and procreation are impossible. There is no gift to give, and there is no capacity with which to receive the gift. Man and woman are uniquely made to be total gifts to each other, bodies and souls; the woman has a unique capacity to receive the gift of the man, and the man has a unique capacity to receive the gift of the woman. This is a simple fact based in the reality of man’s bodily and spiritual nature. Marriage is a reality conferred by God through the creation of human nature; it is not definable by supreme courts or political constitutions or imperial power structures.
And finally, the grace of a blessing implies conformity to this natural law and God’s law; it cannot reverse the nature God has created or sanctify that which goes against nature; grace can only build upon nature as it is. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Caritas in Veritate, there can be no real unity, no real love, without truth. “Truth is itself a gift… [it] is not something that we produce, it is always found, or better, received… it is neither planned nor willed, but somehow imposes itself upon human beings.” Submission to truth is a prerequisite for blessing; that which God has not ordered or arranged cannot be blessed.
We are made to be gifts to God and gifts to each other, body and soul; to go against God’s law, which is for our good, is to refuse the gift. Newman would ask us to be mindful of our Christian duty to carefully delineate between sin and righteousness, evil and good, and to recognize that we do no favors to the Church or to the world by softening what we mean by sin – it is a duty of charity to highlight sin, to warn others of its real and eternal costs, and to lovingly call all men and women out of it. What doctor would help his patient by refraining from stating the diagnosis? The best preliminary blessing that can be given to sinners is to be made aware of their sin. They may reject such knowledge, but we are culpable if we do not confront it. In “The Salvation of the Hearer the Motive of the Preacher,” Newman says that introducing the “great gift from God” of salvation begins with saying to the sinner, “there is but one way of salvation, marked out from the beginning, and… you are not walking along it.” The world may and does reject this gift, since “No one likes bad news, no one welcomes what condemns him; the world slanders the Truth in self-defense, because the Truth denounces the world.” But among that throng of intransigent sinners who balk at the preaching of truth, some few may be listening, some humble bunch may have soft hearts disposed to turn from their ways, waiting only for the clear sign they know in their hearts will come to show them the light out of their darkness. Rather than attempting to bless marriages that are not marriages—which simply cannot be done in fact by the nature of the case of what marriage is—Newman would exhort the Church in the 21st century to have recourse to her Christ-given commission, the true blessing of the New Creation: to baptize, to call to repentance, to teach His commands, to preach the unadulterated Gospel that curries no favors with fashionable vices, and dares not dally in denouncing grave sins. Without truth, there is no gift of love, no gift of unity; if we wish to receive the gift of a blessing, we must, so to speak, conform ourselves to ourselves—conform ourselves to how God made us to be, to arrange our relations in accord with nature as created by God in order to have a capacity, a real ability, to receive the gift of love given by the true Giver of love.