There are many times when I think of Cardinal Basil Hume. I have done so often in recent weeks as I have pondered the need to defend the institution of marriage without losing care for those of a same-sex orientation.
The cardinal was an inspired teacher of our faith. He had a rare ability both to hold before us the fullness of Church teaching and to convey a compassionate understanding of the ambiguities and failures of our lives. As a teacher and as a witness he could both support and challenge us at the same time. He had taken to heart the words of St Paul that the human race has nothing to boast about to God other than the grace of God at work in us (see 1 Cor 1:29-31).
Cardinal Hume had a deep concern that those of a same-sex orientation should feel welcome in the Church. That was why, in 1997, he published “A Note on the Teaching of the Church Concerning Homosexuality”. Its main points remain crucial for today and I recall them here, using for the most part the language of the original document.
First, some principles:
1) The Dignity of the Human Person: The teaching of the Church is that we are to recognise the dignity of all people and not define or label them in terms of their sexual orientation. To do so is to risk losing sight of the fundamental identity of every person as a creature of God and, by grace, his child and heir to eternal life.
2) Sexuality and Marriage: There are two fundamental principles which determine Catholic teaching on sexual matters: that the sexual expression of love is intended by God’s plan of creation to find its place exclusively within marriage between a man and a woman, and that this expression of love must be open to the possible transmission of new life. This, of course, is a great challenge. It means that many types of sexual activity, including same-sex sexual activity, are not consistent with the teaching of the Church. No individual, bishop, priest or lay person is in a position to change this teaching of the Church which we hold to be God-given.
Secondly, some further considerations:
3) Homosexual orientation: The moral teaching of the Catholic Church is primarily concerned with our actions. Neither a heterosexual nor a homosexual orientation leads inevitably to sexual activity. Yet, in the context of the Church’s sexual moral teaching, a same-sex orientation can tend towards actions which are contrary to that teaching. Sexual orientation does not dictate the whole personality and character of an individual. Furthermore, a person’s sexual orientation can be unclear, even complex. Also, it may vary over the years. Most importantly, an orientation is not a moral failing.
4) Friendship: Friendship is a gift of God. Friendship is a way of loving. Friendship is necessary for every person. To equate friendship and full sexual involvement with another is to distort the very concept of friendship. Sexual loving presupposes friendship, but friendship does not require full sexual involvement. It is a mistake to say, or think, or presume that if two people of the same (or different) sexes enjoy a deep and lasting friendship then they must be sexually involved.
5) Love: “Love” must never be thought of as being synonymous with “sex”. Love can take many forms: between husband and wife, between parents and children, between relatives as well as the chaste love of friendship. In whatever context it arises, and always respecting the appropriate manner of its expression, love between two people, whether of the same sex or of a different sex, is to be treasured and respected. When two people love they experience in a limited manner in this world what will be their unending delight when one with God in the next. To love another is in fact to reach out to God who shares his lovableness with the one we love. To be loved is to receive a sign, or a share, of God’s unconditional love. But that experience of love is spoiled, whether in marriage or in friendship, when we do not think and act as God wills us to think and act. Human loving is precarious, for human nature is wounded and frail. Thus marriage and friendship will never be easy to handle. We shall often fail, but the ideal remains.
6) Human rights: The Catholic Church advocates and defends the fundamental human rights of every person. But the Church cannot acknowledge among fundamental human rights a supposed “right” to acts which she teaches to be morally wrong. It is a fundamental human right of every person, irrespective of sexual orientation, to be treated by individuals and by society with dignity, respect and fairness. So the Church condemns violence of speech or action against people of a same-sex orientation. Nothing in the Church’s teaching can be said to support or sanction, even implicitly, their victimisation or isolation. This should have no place among Catholics.
7) Pastoral care: The Church’s pastoral response to people of same-sex orientation will involve a respectful attitude and a sympathetic understanding of their situation, in addition to sacramental life, prayer, counsel and individual care so that the whole Christian community can come to recognise its own call to assist its brothers and sisters, without deluding them or isolating them. Those exercising pastoral care recognise that human nature is frail and subject to temptation and are concerned to understand and to help those who find it hard to live in accordance with the Church’s teaching. They should remember that the Church warns us against generalisations in attributing culpability in individual cases.
Conclusion: All are precious in the eyes of God. The love which one person can have for and receive from another is a gift of God. Nevertheless, God calls all people to keep his law and to work towards achieving a difficult ideal, even if this will only be achieved gradually. God has a love for every person which is greater than any love which one human being could have for another. In all the circumstances and situations of life, God calls each person, whatever his or her sexual orientation, to fulfil that part of his created design which only that person can fulfil.
My last word: I am grateful that Cardinal Hume left us this gift. As he makes clear, this message only truly makes sense when we are trying to live our lives in a relationship with Jesus, Our Lord. Only when he stands at the centre of our lives can we understand both the loving support and loving challenge he offers us. Only when we stand before him can we accept ourselves as we are, with all our faults and failings, yet invited to a fullness of life and love which at present we can only glimpse. But we know that the Lord walks with us and will never forsake us.