The Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Giacomo Morandi, has rushed to clarify what he has called “distorted”, “instrumental” and downright “wrong” readings of a new Vatican study of Catholic biblical anthropology.
Morandi insisted in an interview with official Vatican outlet Vatican News that the new Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC) study contains no further openings to either divorce or same-sex unions than those already present in the tradition.
However, doubts are persisting in Catholic circles over just how far the PBC study goes, what it means, and what implications it might have.
The confusion has arisen over excerpts from the PBC document reproduced out of context, which the PBC takes pains to stress actually come from Catholic “voices of dissent”.
We at Novena were careful to highlight that rhetorical strategy of the PBC in our original report on the document.
Still, the PBC document appears to contain important advances, above all in terms of its more nuanced position on homosexuality and homosexual unions, and in its call for more “pastoral care” for these people.
For example, as Rome correspondent of the La Croix newspaper, Nicolas Senèze, pointed out, “some of the conclusions of the study run counter to the fundamentalist readings of the Bible”.
As LGBT+ rights advocate and priest James Martin noted on Twitter, the PBC document challenges a fundamentalist reading of the stories of Sodom and Gibeah in the Old Testament, for example, noting that for the biblical authors “what is condemned is not ‘a sexual transgression’, but pride and aggression toward a stranger or strangers needing assistance”.
It seems the key, at any rate, is explained by the PBC in the following excerpt from the study (our emphasis):
The exacting examination conducted on the texts of the Old and New Testaments has revealed elements that must be considered for an evaluation of homosexuality, in its ethical implications. Certain formulations of biblical authors, as well as the disciplinary directives of Leviticus, require an intelligent interpretation that safeguards the values that the sacred text intends to promote, thus avoiding repeating to the letter what it carries with it, even cultural traits of that time. The contribution provided by the human sciences, together with the reflection of theologians and moral theologians, will be indispensable for an adequate exposition of the issue, which has only been sketched out in this document.
In other words: the PBC document offers, in accordance with the tenets of modern biblical exegesis, “a more mature, more complex interpretation… of certain biblical texts”, as study author Pietro Bovati, SJ originally noted to Vatican News.
But though there’s still more work to be done by moral and pastoral theologians if we’re to speak of a Vatican ‘revolution’ on homosexuality, the PBC opening to modern methods of reading the Bible, and its rhetorical dialogue with Catholic “voices of dissent”, still means significant progress.
The Vatican News interview with CDF secretary Giacomo Morandi:
Excellency, can you explain the meaning of the document on anthropology just published by the Pontifical Biblical Commission? What’s its purpose?
The document itself states that it is intended to be “a faithful interpretation of all Holy Scripture regarding the anthropological issue”. This is based “on an original explanatory procedure that has taken as a reference text the creation narrative of Genesis 2-3… because these biblical texts are considered to be fundamental by the New Testament literature and by the dogmatic tradition of the Church”. In short, the text aims to “promote a global vision of the divine project on man, which began with the act of creation and is carried out over time, until its fulfillment in Christ, the new man, which constitutes the key, the centre and goal of all human history”.
Some were surprised by the statement about the possibility of spouses separating, even though this is the traditional position of the Church. Does that mean an “opening” to divorce? What does that passage mean and how does it relate to the teaching of [the] indissolubility [of marriage]?
The teaching of the Church, with the Code of Canon Law, already grants spouses validly united by the sacrament of marriage the right to separate in certain particular cases. But this fact has never meant any legitimation of divorce, among other things because a sacrament of validly-contracted marriage remains that way and can never be annulled by any other act. On the other hand, the hypothesis in which marriage is recognised as void from the beginning is different: this is the case of the procedures for the declaration of nullity of marriage. However, sometimes there are situations in which cohabitation between spouses becomes practically impossible for various reasons. It is precisely in these cases that the Church admits the physical separation of the spouses and the end of cohabitation. However, the spouses who are validly united by the sacrament of marriage do not cease to be husband and wife before God and, therefore, are not free to contract a new union. The Christian community is called to be close to these people and to help them live their situation in a Christian way, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church recalls with authority in paragraph 1649. The document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission follows exactly this line and certainly does not “open up” to divorce, as some, in a distorted or instrumental way, believe or would like.
Other paragraphs that have drawn attention are those related to homosexuality. There are those who have read in the document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission an opening to same-sex unions. Is that the case?
For some time, especially in Western culture, voices of dissent have been raised regarding the anthropological approach of Scripture, as the Church understands and transmits it in its normative aspects; all this is often judged as the simple reflection of an archaic and historically-conditioned mentality. We know that various biblical statements, in the cosmological, biological and sociological field, have been gradually considered as surpassed by the progressive advances of natural and human sciences. In this sense, some say that a new and more adequate understanding of the human person would impose a radical reservation on the exclusive value of the heterosexual union, in favor of an analogous acceptance of homosexuality and homosexual unions as a legitimate and dignified expression of the human being. In addition – it is sometimes argued – the Bible says little or nothing about these types of relationships, which therefore should no longer be considered morally illicit. It is an ideological and partial approach to anthropology. Actually, the document at number 185 says verbatim: “The institution of marriage, constituted by the stable relationship between husband and wife, is constantly presented as evident and normative throughout the biblical tradition. There are no examples of ‘union’ legally recognised between same-sex people”. Therefore, there is no “opening” to same-sex unions, as some have wrongly stated.
(Interview source: Vatican News/Novena translation)