A representative of the Association of Catholic Priests, Fr Tim Hazlewood, has said he would bless the union of same-sex couples despite the Vatican ruling it out this week, saying the church ‘cannot bless sin’.
“If Christ was with us now, he would do the caring, the loving thing,” Fr Hazelwood said.
Earlier this week, the Vatican decreed that the Catholic Church cannot bless same-sex unions because God “cannot bless sin”.
The Vatican’s orthodoxy office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued a formal response to a question about whether Catholic clergy can bless gay unions.
The answer, approved by Pope Francis, was “negative”.
Fr Hazlewood, who ministers in a parish in East Cork, said he had been approached by families who have somebody who is in a same-sex relationship.
“Our experience is that they are lovely couples and to hear something like that, that their relationship is sinful, I wonder how many of them know and meet and interact with those families and those people,” he told RTÉ Morning Ir
Fr Hazlewood said the Pope was in a difficult position, but to listen to that statement was “so disappointing, it was appalling.”
“He’s trying to hold all the parts together, in parts of the world, including Ireland, there is a small group who are very anti-Pope Francis and anti the changes, the new breath of life that he’s bringing.”
“For a lot of people and families, it’s very disappointing. Does he want to cause a schism in the church?”
When asked if he would bless a same sex couple’s union, Fr Hazlewood replied: “Just two days ago there were pieces of weed that grow in the ground and I blessed them. I blessed shamrock, now if two people stand in front of me and they love each other and they are committing to each other for the rest of their lives and I bless shamrock and wouldn’t bless them. I don’t think there’s a doubt or a question there.”
The church’s teaching on what marriage means has not changed, he said.
“In Ireland, we’re going to have a synod in the next five years and the bishops have said they want people on the margins to be part of that, would any gay person come near a church that says things like this?”
“There’s an awful difference between somebody in Rome making a promulgation and what’s the lived experience of the church and I think a lot of priests would say ‘if Christ was here with us now, what would Christ do?’
“He would do the caring, the loving thing. He was the one who challenged all of these rules himself. Pope Francis is asking us to talk about these things, this is the way forward”
“There’s going to be an awful lot more things like this in the church which is a good thing.”
As a scholar specializing in the history of the Catholic Church and gender studies, I can attest that 1,000 years ago, gay priests were not so restricted. In earlier centuries, the Catholic Church paid little attention to homosexual activity among priests or laypeople.
Open admission of same-sex desires
While the church’s official stance prohibiting sexual relations between people of the same sex has remained constant, the importance the church ascribes to the “sin” has varied. Additionally, over centuries, the church only sporadically chose to investigate or enforce its prohibitions.
Even within those, apparent references to same-sex relations were not originally written or understood as categorically indicting homosexual acts, as in modern times. Christians before the late 19th century had no concept of gay or straight identity.
It took centuries for a Christian consensus to agree with Philo’s misinterpretation, and it eventually became the accepted understanding of this scripture, from which the derogatory term “sodomite” emerged.
He could not have been delivering a blanket condemnation of homosexuality or homosexuals because these concepts would not exist for 1,800 more years.
Gay sex, as such, usually went unpunished
Early church leaders didn’t seem overly concerned about punishing those who engaged in homosexual practice. I have found that there is a remarkable silence about homosexual acts, both in theologies and in church laws for over 1,000 years, before the late 12th century.
If a man took on the passive role in a same-sex act, he took on the woman’s role. He was “unmasculine and effeminate,” a transgression of the gender hierarchy that Philo of Alexandria called the “greatest of all evils.” The concern was to police gender roles rather than sex acts, in and of themselves.
Church councils and penance manuals show little concern over the issue. In the early 12th century, a time of church revival, reform and expansion, prominent priests and monks could write poetry and letters glorifying love and passion – even physical passion – toward those of the same sex and not be censured.
Instead, it was civil authorities that eventually took serious interest in prosecuting the offenders.
The Third Lateran Council of 1179, a church council held at the Lateran palace in Rome, for example, outlawed sodomy. Clerics who practiced it were either to be defrocked or enter a monastery to perform penance. Laypeople were more harshly punished with excommunication.
It might be mentioned that such hostility grew, not only toward people engaging in same-sex relations but toward other minority groups as well. Jews, Muslims and lepers also faced rising levels of persecution.
While church laws and punishments against same-sex acts grew increasingly harsh, they were, at first, only sporadically enforced. Influential churchmen, such as 13th-century theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas and popular preacher Bernardino of Siena, known as the “Apostle of Italy,” disagreed about the severity of sin involved.
Today, the Catholic Catechism teaches that desiring others of the same sex is not sinful but acting on those desires is.
As the Catechism says, persons with such desires should remain chaste and “must be accepted with respect and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” Indeed, Catholic ministries such as DignityUSA and New Ways Ministries seek to serve and advocate for this population.
Yet gay priests are in a different category. They live and work under mandatory celibacy, often in same-sex religious orders. Pope Francis I has encouraged them to be “perfectly responsible” to avoid scandal, while discouraging other gay men from entering the priesthood.
Many fear retribution if they cannot live up to this ideal. For the estimated 30-40% of U.S priests who are gay, the openness of same-sex desire among clerics of the past is but a memory.
A grand jury report recently found shocking levels of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church. It uncovered, in six dioceses, the sexual abuse of over 1,000 children and named 301 perpetrator priests. It also found that religious officials had turned a blind eye to the abuse.
In response, Pope Francis, head of the Roman Catholic Church, wrote a letter addressed to “the People of God,” saying,
“With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives. We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them.”
The fact is the pope has the power to ensure that this does not happen again. As a scholar ofthe Catholic Church, I believe an important but often poorly understood reason for the abandonment of abused children is the Church’s Code of Canon law, which the pope alone can change.
Early church laws on sex abuse
Canon laws govern the church and lay out its theology. All Catholic religious officials are bound by them.
As Christian communities spread throughout the Mediterranean region in the third century A.D., regional meetings were held to discuss rules that could be applied uniformly.
By the fourth century A.D., Christian churches, usually through councils, started issuing authoritative rules accepted by all Christian communities. These came to be called “canons.” The most well-known were those of the Council of Nicaea, convened by Emperor Constantine in A.D. 325.
As Christianity spread east and west, it struggled with rulers who wanted to control peoples and territories. Diverse rules and norms proliferated. At the same time, over many centuries, various religious leaders and theologians tried to create a uniform system.
It was not until 1917, under Pope Benedict XV, however, that the Church consolidated and revised the many different rules in Western Christendom. This was titled the Code of Canon Law, applicable to all Roman Catholic churches. Only the pope could issue or change canon law. The Orthodox, or “Eastern rite,” churches have a slightly different set of laws.
That changed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Church-state battles flared in Europe as secular states rejected the church’s claims to sovereignty. The Church made the handling of clergy child sex abuse an internal matter.
The 1917 code was revised in 1983 to take into account changes stemming from the Second Vatican Council, an assembly of Roman Catholic bishops meant to settle doctrinal issues, held between 1962 to 1965. Both versions of the code include canons about sex abuse.
Under Vatican control
Here is how canon law changed over the years.
Since 1917, the church dealt with accusations against sexual abuse of children through rules that barred priests from soliciting sex when they were in the confessional.
If priests, when taking a confession, solicited sex, they were viewed as having committed a particularly egregious sin. The confessional is a sacred space and confession a sacred act.
What is noteworthy here is that the concern was about the priest sinning, not about abuse being perpetrated on another. Also, the 1917 code did not have any canons that dealt with sex abuse outside the confessional or sex abuse of minors.
In 1922, the pope issued a set of guidelines, formally called an instruction. It tried to deal with cases in which the priest did not directly solicit sex during confession. Clerical sex abuse of minors was a crime if the act was somehow associated with the sacrament of confession.
From 1922 onward, investigations of clergy suspected of sexually abusing children were to be cloaked in secrecy. This limited bishops from reporting cases to the police, or even to parishioners.
But it was only in the 1983 code that child sex abuse was listed as a crime within the canon about clergy violating their obligation to not have sex. The new code gave the Vatican extensive control over the fate of accused clergy.
If a bishop, for example, were to make known that a priest had sexually abused children in his diocese, the bishop, and not just the priest, would be guilty under canon law of causing scandal – because information about the abuse might cause Catholics to question their faith – as indeed, it often has.
Under the 1917 code, bishops, under certain conditions, could dismiss priests from the clerical state, and without a canonical trial. But it could be done only after it was determined that there was no possibility of reform.
The 1983 revision put forward by Pope John Paul II to the entire code made it impossible for bishops to dismiss priests. Authority for doing so became centralized in the Vatican.
At the time, the pope appeared to be responding to a wave of priests abandoning the priesthood. However, the change ended up constraining the bishops. They had to retain the abusive priests unless the latter were found guilty at a canonical trial and the Vatican – officially, the pope – agreed to dismiss them.
At most, bishops could suspend priests’ clerical faculties: that is, priests’ authorization to say mass and administer other sacraments, or present themselves publicly as priests, for a short time. But they could not do so permanently.
The 1983 code also reduced the maximum time within which proceedings could be initiated against priests having sex with a child to five years.
With victims often, understandably, not coming forward for years, that meant many priests escaped internal punishment by the Vatican.
Since 2001, in a further centralizing move, the Vatican has required that bishops send all cases of substantiated allegations of child sex abuse to its Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is located at the Vatican, and is usually headed by a powerful Cardinal.