Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Why Holy Matrimony, Part II: Last week I wrote a post explaining why I consider the church’s opposition to gay marriage to be a much more serious matter than the state’s (see here). But this raises a second question which I did not address there: why, despite my submission to the authority of the church in matters of faith and morals, I not only reject the church’s teaching on homosexuality, but feel free to act in opposition to it?

Like many theological questions, this is not the sort of question that can be answered in a few paragraphs. But in my own thinking about the issue, one thing I've found especially helpful has been the realization that doctrinal change has been a constant feature of church history from the beginning (see, e.g., the evolution in the church’s stance toward the continuing validity of Jewish law as recounted in Acts 15 and Galatians 2). As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, "even if Revelation is already complete, it has not been made fully explicit; it remains for Christian faith gradually to grasp its full significance over the course of the centuries” (No. 66).

Of course, the mere fact that doctrine develops over time does not mean that any given proposed change is legitimate. How, then, do we know what is corruption and what is authentic?

Father Richard John Neuhaus suggests an answer to this quetion that offers both Catholics and Protestants much to ponder:

"Recall Cardinal Newman’s reflection on the development of doctrine, a reflection that has been incorporated by magisterial teaching. He suggested seven marks of authentic development: authentic development preserves the Church’s apostolic form; it reflects continuity of principles in testing the unknown by the known; it demonstrates the power to assimilate what is true, even in what is posited against it; it follows a logical sequence; it anticipates future developments; it conserves past developments; and, throughout, it claims and demonstrates the vigor of teaching authority.

And thus it is, said St. Vincent of Lerins in the fifth century, that in authentic development of doctrine nothing presents itself in the Church’s old age that was not latent in her youth. Such was the truth discovered by Augustine, a truth ‘ever ancient, ever new.’”

This last point expresses well the task that gay and lesbian Christians must be prepared to accept as we come to the church asking it to bless our unions. In short, we must be willing to show our brothers and sisters why, despite the fact that gay marriage appears to be and indeed is a novum or new thing, it nonetheless represents an authentic development of doctrine that affirms and even underscores the church's ancient understanding of what marriage is and what it is for.

This is an issue that I have already discussed here, here, and here. But next week I will offer a third installment in this series that will attempt to bring these arguments together in a more systematic way.

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