If you’re gay, the Vatican has bad news. “Amoris Laetitia,” an “apostolic exhortation” published on Friday, says no same-sex union can be a marriage. That’s because, as the document explains, “No union that is temporary or closed to the transmission of life can ensure the future of society.” But if you’re straight and infertile, the rule about transmitting life doesn’t apply. Your marriage is just as valid as anyone else’s, according to the document, since “procreation and adoption are not the only ways of experiencing the fruitfulness of love.”
This double standard, between homosexuality and other forms of infertility, is the cracked pillar at the foundation of the church’s policy against same-sex unions. It’s how Catholic teaching on homosexuality will eventually collapse. “Amoris Laetitia” illustrates why.
Liberals are disappointed that the document, issued by Pope Francis, doesn’t reform the church’s teachings on homosexuality. It reminds everyone to be nice to gay people—“Every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration”—but supports cardinals and bishops who reject same-sex marriage. “There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family,” says the document, quoting these prelates. That’s because, “according to the order of creation, conjugal love between a man and a woman, and the transmission of life are ordered to each other.”
I’ve defended this argument to friends and colleagues who support same-sex marriage. I don’t agree with it, but it’s not irrational. Strict biological distinctions between groups of people are rare, but this is one of them: Same-sex couples can’t produce biological children together. A rational person can stipulate that no relationship between two people categorically incapable of producing children together—i.e., a same-sex couple—can be a marriage.
That position starts to crumble, however, when its advocates exempt heterosexuals from the same analysis. Many opposite-sex couples can’t produce children together, either. For them, “Amoris Laetitia” offers a more generous message. “Marriage is firstly an ‘intimate partnership of life and love’ which is a good for the spouses themselves,” the document declares. Therefore, “spouses to whom God has not granted children can have a conjugal life full of meaning, in both human and Christian terms.”
The term “fruitfulness,” which the church wields as a fertility requirement against same-sex couples, miraculously becomes metaphoric in the case of infertile opposite-sex couples. In a section titled “An Expanding Fruitfulness,” “Amoris Laetitia” explains:
Some couples are unable to have children. We know that this can be a cause of real suffering for them. At the same time, we know that “marriage was not instituted solely for the procreation of children” … Even in cases where, despite the intense desire of the spouses, there are no children, marriage still retains its character of being a whole manner and communion of life, and preserves its value and indissolubility.” So too, “motherhood is not a solely biological reality, but is expressed in diverse ways.”
Communion of life. Indissolubility. If you’re part of a lifelong gay couple, how do these acknowledgments not apply to you? And what if you’re raising kids together? “Amoris Laetitia” says that’s a great way for infertile straight couples to fulfill the purpose of marriage: “The choice of adoption or foster parenting can also express that fruitfulness which is a characteristic of married life.” This joint undertaking, according to the document, is a reminder that “children, whether natural, adoptive or taken in foster care, are persons in their own right who need to be accepted, loved and cared for, and not just brought into this world.”
According to “Amoris Laetitia,” “We also do well to remember that procreation and adoption are not the only ways of experiencing the fruitfulness of love.” Another kind of marital fruitfulness, it points out, is building and sustaining the world: “Families should not see themselves as a refuge from society, but instead go forth from their homes in a spirit of solidarity with others. In this way, they become a hub for integrating persons into society. … Married couples should have a clear awareness of their social obligations.”
Same-sex couples can do all of these things. They can sustain lifetime commitments, build virtuous communities, and give children loving homes. They can also provide what the church celebrates in straight marriages: erotic love.
“Amoris Laetitia” isn’t shy in its praise of carnal fulfillment. It rejects the notion “that the Church simply tolerates sexuality ‘because it is necessary for procreation.’ ” It exalts sexual expression as “an interpersonal language wherein the other is taken seriously, in his or her sacred and inviolable dignity,” concluding:
A healthy sexual desire, albeit closely joined to a pursuit of pleasure, always involves a sense of wonder, and for that very reason can humanize the impulses. In no way, then, can we consider the erotic dimension of love simply as a permissible evil or a burden to be tolerated for the good of the family. Rather, it must be seen as gift from God that enriches the relationship of the spouses. As a passion sublimated by a love respectful of the dignity of the other, it becomes a “pure, unadulterated affirmation” revealing the marvels of which the human heart is capable.
If you don’t think people can express that kind of love in a same-sex relationship, you’re underestimating God and the human heart. Gay love is real. That’s why opponents of same-sex marriage are retreating to an argument they see as purely biological: that penile-vaginal intercourse, while sometimes sterile in practice, is always procreative in principle. In the words of “Amoris Laetitia,” “Love refuses every impulse to close in on itself; it is open to a fruitfulness that draws it beyond itself. Hence no genital act of husband and wife can refuse this meaning, even when for various reasons it may not always in fact beget a new life.”
I can’t falsify this argument, because it’s not biological. It’s a claim about the “meaning” of an act, regardless of context or consequences.
Once the church’s double standard collapses—once its analysis of infertile straight couples is applied to gay couples—its only remaining argument against same-sex households is their putative inferiority at raising kids. That’s an empirical claim, and it’s disintegrating. “Amoris Laetitia” says men differ from women, and each sex “contributes in a distinct way to the upbringing of a child.” But in opposite-sex couples, it concedes, “There can be a certain flexibility of roles and responsibilities, depending on the concrete circumstances of each particular family.” Why not extend that flexibility to same-sex couples? The document also claims every child has a “natural right to have a mother and a father,” including “their mutual love, perceived as the source of one’s life.” But if you’re adopted, the parents who raise you aren’t the source of your life, even if they’re straight.
In the United States, gay marriage has gone from absurdity to law in about 20 years. It won’t be nearly that fast in Catholicism. It might take centuries. But when it happens, the church will quote passages from “Amoris Laetitia” and similar documents. They’ll just be the passages that, in 2016, were meant to apply only to heterosexuals.