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That’s not right. That’s not even wrong.

September 21, 2017

According to Fr. James Martin, although the Church teaches that “LGBT people must be celibate their entire lives” this expectation “has not been received”, by lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and/or transgender people, and therefore it has failed to become “authoritative” in their regard.

I am reminded of a furrowed-brow comment a friend once made upon hearing some speaker bungle several ecclesiastical terms: “That’s not right,” he said. “That’s not even wrong. I don’t know what that is.” So, as when Martin misconstrued the significance of his book having an “Imprimi potest”, I pause to untangle these concepts for those who would like to understand and apply them more accurately.

First, there is no Church law or teaching that lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and/or transgender people “must be celibate their entire lives”. None.

While lots of people, for lots of reasons, are single, celibacy is the willed state of not marrying. Martin, for example, is not simply single, he is celibate because he chose, as a cleric (1983 CIC 1087) and as a religious (1983 CIC 1089), to be bound by two impediments against marriage and to share thereby in the “special gift of God” (1983 CIC 277 § 1) that celibacy is. Other impediments whereby one is prevented from marrying can arise not by one’s personal choice but by conditions of life, such as being too young (nonage, 1983 CIC 1083) or being too closely related to another person (consanguinity, 1983 CIC 1091). Clearly some marriage impediments last only for a time or apply only in regard to certain potential spouses while others are permanent and universal.

But, getting back to Martin’s claim, the list of impediments by which one is prevented from marrying in the Church is taxatively presented in the Code of Canon Law (1983 CIC 1075) and, search that Code from start to finish, one will not find any of Martin’s subjects (lesbians, gays, bi-sexuals, and/or transgenders) listed as being impeded from marriage. In no wise, whether by incurrence of an impediment by choice or by imposition, does Church law or teaching require such persons to be celibate at all, let alone for their entire lives.

Second—and this is a guess born not simply of Martin’s own words earlier in the clip linked above, but of my seeing people muff these distinctions for many decades—Martin might be confusing “celibacy” (the choice not to marry) with “continence” (the choice to refrain from sexual relations) and, assuming his acceptance of settled Church teaching that sexual relations are only for married couples, Martin might be trying to say that Church teaching on the “continence” to which all non-married persons are called has not been “received” by at least some of the groups Martin has in mind and that they do not feel bound to observe it.

Martin’s causal invocation of “reception”, however, in regard to the moral teachings belies the actual concept of “reception” which (in the few instances that it is discussed at all) is almost always treated in regard to one community’s acceptance of another’s creedal assertions or juridic determinations. In other words, “reception”, a concept mostly of academic interest for the last millennium, is not a category by which the nature of moral teachings are typically assessed in ecclesiastical life. One can, of course, talk usefully about whether some moral teaching is being ‘complied with’ or is being ‘violated by’ individuals or groups, but not whether it has been “received” by some person or group.

Finally, Martin might regret that, in virtue of Canon 1055 (which presents the nature of marriage itself), two lesbians cannot marry each other, nor can two homosexuals, but, if that is what underlies Martin’s complaints about celibacy supposedly being imposed on such persons, he needs to take it up with the infallible Magisterium of the Church.

Meanwhile we need to be clear: if, say, a woman who experiences same-sex attraction is canonically free to marry, and she attempts marriage with a man who is also free to marry, their wedding enjoys the same presumption of validity that every other marriage enjoys—unless and until it is proven null for reasons other than a non-existent impediment to marriage allegedly known as ‘lesbianism’. Because no such impediment exists.

The Church does not minimize the difficulties that people with same-sex attraction can encounter in marriage. But those difficulties do not include being required by Church teaching or law to remain celibate at all, let alone for life, and ministers engaged in outreach to such persons should not imply otherwise.


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