In a potentially groundbreaking move, the Pontifical Biblical Commission, a body of the Vatican’s dogma-deciding Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has shifted towards justifying divorce and more “pastoral care” for gays.
Driving the news
The openings to relaxations in Church doctrine on marriage and sexuality are contained in a new 300-page study by the Commission entitled What is man? An itinerary of biblical anthropology.
The new book was billed by official Vatican media portal Vatican News as “a new systematic study on the anthropological vision of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation”.
The big picture
“The Commission’s study is composed of four chapters, dealing with major themes including man as created by God; man in relation to the rest of creation; the relational reality of anthropology (focusing on spousal, parental/filial, and fraternal relationships); and the salvific plan of God for humankind”, Vatican News explained.
Stating that the mandate for the study came directly from the Pope, Commission secretary Pietro Bovati, SJ told the Vatican media outlet that “Scripture teaches man the truth about man”.
Not in the sense that the Bible is a question-and-answer book to be consulted and applied by people without discernment, but rather a collection of “useful indications for reflection” on situations in human history, the Jesuit explained.
That careful methodology is precisely one of the strengths of the Commission’s new study.
“We agreed to address the issues, respecting the level of information that we have from Scripture” but also recognising that today’s “cultural situation” is far removed from those reflected in the Bible, Bovati said.
In their task of “showing what Scripture really says”, the Commission experts “kept in mind… the whole Christian tradition”, but also carried out “a systematic work… in order to offer a path of what the Bible says about all the complexity of the human being”, the Jesuit affirmed.
“We have not only tried to clarify some points, and perhaps give a more mature, more complex interpretation even of certain biblical texts”, Bovati continued.
The Jesuit explained that the new study’s novelty “lies in the itinerary, in offering to theologians, to those involved in the transmission of the faith, an understanding of man that is more complex, more organic, more in conformity with our Biblical traditions”.
Why it matters
According to Bovati, the Commission, in its new study, has carried out biblical exegesis that “had never been done” before.
That’s because, as Vatican News put it, “theologians normally only cite texts that are useful for the arguments they are making”.
And indeed, the Commission’s conclusions on marriage and homosexual relationships have the potential to be monumental shifts for the Church.
On marriage, on the one hand, the Commission reaffirms the traditional doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage.
But it also concludes that “the spouse who, observing that the conjugal relationship is no longer an expression of love, decides to separate from a partner who threatens the peace or life of a family member does not therefore act contrary to marriage”.
On homosexuality, on the other hand, the Commission reaffirms that “the institution of marriage, constituted by the stable relationship between husband and wife, is constantly presented as evident and normative throughout the biblical tradition”.
In that same tradition, the Commission says, there are no “examples of a legally-recognised union between persons of the same sex”.
However, the novelty comes in that the Commission also recognises that there are dissenting voices from Church teaching that claim a recognition of “homosexuality and homosexual unions as a legitimate and worthy expression of the human being”, just the same as for heterosexuality and heterosexual unions.
“For some time now, in particular in Western culture, voices of dissent have appeared with respect to the anthropological approach of Scripture, as it is understood and transmitted by the Church in its normative aspects”, the Commission notes in its study.
Traditional Catholic anthropology is “judged” by these dissenting voices “as the simple reflection of an archaic, historically-conditioned mentality”, the Commission laments.
The Commission also recalls that those same dissenters claim that just as the Church has advanced – on the basis of progress in the natural and human sciences – from “outdated” biblical affirmations with respect to cosmology, biology and sociology, so too can the Church advance – on the basis of “a new and more adequate understanding of the human person” – from its “exclusive valorisation of the heterosexual union in favor of a similar acceptance of homosexuality and homosexual unions”.
“Moreover, it is sometimes argued that the Bible says little or nothing about this type of erotic relationship [homosexuality], which should not therefore be condemned, also because it is often unduly confused with other aberrant sexual behaviors”, such as pedophilia, the Commission continues.
For the record
Taking note of these dissenters from Church teaching on homosexuality, the Commission concludes that its exegesis of Old and New Testament texts “has brought to light elements that must be considered for an evaluation of homosexuality, in its ethical implications”.
“Certain formulations of biblical authors, such as the disciplinary directives of Leviticus, require an intelligent interpretation that safeguards the values that the sacred text intends to promote” yet that filters out the “cultural traits” common to biblical times, but not to ours, the Commission says.
“Pastoral care will be required, particularly with regard to individuals, to implement that service of good that the Church has to take on in its mission for men”, the Commission concludes, reaffirming its position that “the homoerotic relationship should not be condemned”.