Sunday, December 19, 2004

Homosexuality and the Catholic Tradition

[NOTE: This is another in an ongoing discussion of scripture and homosexuality between myself and a 'liberal Catholic' blogger Nathan Nelson. Our correspondence has been divided into three subjects: 1) "The Sin of Sodom"; 2) "Leviticus and St. Paul"; 3) "Homosexuality & Natural Law". This is a continuation of the third section "Homosexuality and Natural Law", and my 'concluding' post in this series.

In hist last post on "Homosexuality and Catholic tradition", Nathan says:

In a nutshell, Christopher's argument suggests that because men and women are complementary to one another, and because of the procreative purpose behind marriage, homosexual behavior is wrong.

Nathan pays me too great a compliment by attributing the position to me. As I believe readers will see from my post, "the Church's teaching on sexuality is thoroughly scriptural, and its appeal to Genesis can be traced back to St. Paul, Jesus, and the beginning of Jewish teaching on Genesis. The full scope and depth of the Jewish and Chrisian teaching on homosexuality can be obtained from Dr. Robert Gagnon's The Bible and Homosexual Practice, which has received ecumenical recognition by biblical scholars of every denomination, and even grudging recognition by some who disagree with Christianity's teaching.

Nathan apologizes for his reliance upon the work of Dr. Rembert Truluck, who is not a Catholic (one commentator had suggested with wry humor that he find a Jesuit instead). Given my numerous references to non-Catholic scripture scholars I'm not in a position to argue, except that Truluck is hardly original and Nathan might have done better with Boswell or Countryman, who seems to have a better grasp (however incorrect and soundly refuted) of the pro-gay position. In any case, he has now made use of the Pharsea website, from which he presents a new round of "information from scripture that is affirming of same-sex relationships, and in some cases even hints at a romantic relationship between people of the same sex [which counter the] general argument that same-sex relationships are insufficiently self-giving and that they lack in complementarity."

Nathan offers as an example of an ideal gay relationship that of David and Jonathan -- while acknowledging that David wasn't homosexual (given his lust for Bathsheba), he admires the fact that "he gave of himself unconditionally to Jonathan in a relationship that was mutually self-affirming." The same treatment is given to Ruth and Naomi, another ideal lesbian couple (although he likewise acknowledges that they weren't so inclined).

Dr. Robert Gagnon, who we should recognize by now has done his research on this subject, says: "I do not know of any reputable biblical scholar, even on the pro-homosex side, who contends that David and Jonathan had "gay affairs." Such a contention shows no sensitivity to ancient Near Eastern conventions of male-male, non-erotic sociability, the typical use of love language in covenant-treaties, and the political apology for David's rise to power." To even indulge in such "what if?" speculation would be futile and ridiculous.

Nathan then offers the story of "The Centurion of Great Faith" (Mat 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10) as possibly alluding to a traditional Greco-Roman same-sex relationship between a mature male and a younger boy, from which he derives the lesson that Jesus could have affirmed such a relationship:

If the Centurion's undeniable affection and acute concern for his boy was exactly what it might seem to be: the distress of a lover when the beloved is in danger of death, then it is remarkable (if there was any immorality here) that Jesus commended the Centurion as having faith beyond all compare. It is also ironic that the Centurion's confession of faith has become a central part of the Roman Eucharistic Liturgy. I take great comfort and strength from this possibility.

Robert Gagnon addresses this issue in his response to Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times:

If the centurion and his slave were engaged in a homosexual relationship, then it was likely to have been of a particularly coercive and exploitative sort. Using Kristof's logic, we would have to suppose, then, that Jesus was in favor of coercing slaves to have sex with their masters and to feminize their appearance (up to and possibly including castration), inasmuch as Jesus did not speak explicitly against it. Luke speaks of Jewish elders in Capernaum (Galilee) interceding on the centurion's behalf. Should we suppose that these elders too were okay with homosexual unions of this or any type, when all the evidence from Jewish texts of the Second Temple period and beyond indicates unequivocal and absolute opposition to all homosexual practice? Certainly neither Matthew nor Luke read the story to support homosexual unions. Luke portrays the centurion as a "God-fearer" ("he loves our nation and he himself built the synagogue for us"), which makes it highly unlikely that the centurion engaged in homosexual activity. Abstinence from homosexual activity and other illicit sexual unions was a minimal expectation of the "Noahide laws" for Gentiles developing in early Judaism. Certainly, too, not all masters were having sex with their male slaves so Jesus could hardly have assumed homoerotic activity on the part of the centurion.

According to Nathan, other "great examples" of mutually fulfilling homosexual relationships can be seen in Saints Sergius and Bacchus, Plyeuct and Nearchus, and St. Aelred of Rievaulx. He goes on to resurrect John Boswell's historical claim that

". . . at the same time as heterosexual marriage rites were being developed, the Church was also developing rites of pair-bonding for same-sex unions. Of course, there is no proof that these were considered marriages by anyone [emphasis mine], let alone the Church authorities. The ceremony title was often translated as "brother-making." However, it's not impossible that gay marriage was an issue, even during this time period. Two Roman emperors, for instance, were married to men.

Much of the content of the Pharsea site relies heavily on John Boswell. Having not actually read Boswell's work, I'll leave the commentary to others:

  • "Gay Marriage: Reimagining Church History", by Robin Darling Young. Review of Boswell's Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. (First Things 47 (November 1994): 43-48).
  • "Re-imagining marriage: History, culture, and the burden of proof", by Sean Murphy (B.C. Catholic Sept. 15, 2003)
  • "In The Case of John Boswell", by Richard J. Neuhaus (First Things 41 (March 1994): 56-7):

    In sum, Boswell and his book have had quite a run. Among his fellow historians, however, Boswell has not fared so well. The scholarly judgment of his argument has ranged from the sharply critical to the dismissive to the devastating. But reviews in scholarly journals typically appear two or three years after a book is published. By that time the Boswell book had already established itself in many quarters as the definitive word on Christianity and homosexuality. In the draft statement on sexuality issued late last year by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), for instance, Boswell's interpretation of New Testament texts on homosexuality is uncritically accepted. . . .

    Boswell's reading of early Christian and medieval history also turns up what he wants to find. Christian history is a multifarious affair, and it does not take much sniffing around to discover frequent instances of what is best described as hanky-panky. The discovery process is facilitated if one goes through history with what is aptly described as narrow-eyed prurience, interpreting every expression of intense affection between men as proof that they were "gay." A favored slogan of the contemporary gay movement is "We Are Everywhere!" Boswell rummages through Christian history and triumphantly comes up with the conclusion, "They were everywhere." Probably at all times in Christian history one can find instances of homosexual behavior. And it is probably true that at some times more than others such behavior was viewed with "tolerance," in that it was treated with a wink and a nudge. Certainly that has been true of at least some Christian communities in the last forty years or so. The Church has always been composed of sinners, and some periods are more morally lax than others.

    Despite his assiduous efforts, what Boswell's historical scavenger hunt does not produce is any evidence whatever that authoritative Christian teaching ever departed from the recognition that homosexual acts are morally wrong. In the years before, say, the fourth century, when Christian orthodoxy more firmly cohered, there are significant gaps in our knowledge, and numerous sects and heresies flourished, some of them bizarre also in their moral practices. This is a rich field for speculation and fantasy, and Boswell makes the most of it. He has failed, however, to persuade those who are expert in that period. For example, David Wright of Edinburgh wrote the article on homosexuality in the highly respected Encyclopedia of Early Christianity. After discussing the evidence, he summarily dismisses the Boswell book as "influential but highly misleading."

Two scholars I've mentioned in my posts who have taken on Boswell's claims regarding homosexuality and the New Testament are David Wright and Dr. Robert Gagnon.

How About the Natural Law?

According to Nathan,

"[T]he problem with the notion that same-sex love is insufficiently self-giving and complementary is that it presents conjugal love as the highest form of love, the most self-giving, the most complementary -- in direct contradiction to Christ's own words (cf. John 15:13). It presents physiological complementarity as the trump card over spiritual, mental and emotional complementarity. It makes us slaves to animalistic passions and instincts, ignoring the more sublime characteristics of human nature made in the image and likeness of God, unique in creation. It also ignores the fact that human love is never entirely altruistic, but thrives on a mutually advantageous affection for one another. It is a benefit for both people involved.

In my last post I had explained the Church's vision of sexuality is spelled out in the explication of the Sixth Commandment in the Catechism of the Catholic Church [2331 ff], and follows the Jewish tradition in grounding its teaching on sexuality in Genesis' account of the creation of the first man and woman and God's command to "be fruitful and multiply."

First, I would say that the Christian tradition presents physiological complementarity is only one element of complementarity, inseparable from the rest. Robert Gagnon elaborates on what he calls the "broad complementarity" of maleness and femaleness:

For example, I state at the beginning of the concluding chapter [of The Bible and Homosexual Practice]:
Scripture rejects homosexual behavior because it is a violation of the gendered existence of male and female ordained by God at creation. Homosexual intercourse puts males in the category of females and females in the category of males, insofar as they relate to others as sexual beings. . . . God intended the very act of sexual intercourse to be an act of pluralism, embracing a sexual "other" rather than a sexual "same." . . . Same-sex intercourse represents a suppression of the visible evidence in nature regarding malefemale anatomical and procreative complementarity. Complementarity extends also to a range of personality traits and predispositions that contribute to making heterosexual unions enormously more successful in terms of fidelity, endurance, and health than same-sex ones.
Christians are not antibody gnostic dualists. At the same time, the matter is about more than sex organs. It is about essential maleness and femaleness. In effect, Paul is saying in Rom 1:24-27: Start with the obvious fittedness of human anatomy. When done with that, consider procreative design as a clue. Then move on to a broad range of interpersonal differences that define maleness and femaleness. Although the intertextual echo in Rom 1:26-27 is primarily to Gen 1:27, Paul’s citation of Gen 2:24 in another context that deals with sexual immorality and that mentions male-male intercourse (cf. 1 Cor 6:9, 16) indicates that Paul also had in mind the image of the splitting and remerging of the two sexual halves in Gen 2:24.

When the anatomical complementarity of men and women is viewed as emblematic of the complementarity of essential maleness and essential femaleness generally, it becomes much more difficult to argue that attention to complementarity is too simple or superficial. [Source: "A Comprehensive and Critical Review Essay of Homosexuality, Science, and the 'Plain Sense' of Scripture" .pdf format]

Nathan then makes the claim that the position that sexuality must be tied to procreative purpose in order to be authentic was based chiefly on the Church Fathers, who "took an extremely negative approach to human sexuality and saw it as justified only in connection with carrying on the human race." However, says Nathan,

the strenuous objection of the Church Fathers to human sexuality has been all but rejected by the introduction of the unitive aspect of human sexuality by more modern Popes and by Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body. All of these concepts, mind you, would have meant anathema sit to St. Augustine, St. Gregory, St. John Chrysostom and many others."

I'll admit that I'm not too familiar with the Church Fathers -- on that note, perhaps I can coerce my little brother the Patristics scholar and expert on St. Augustine to devote a post to explaining Augustine's conception of sexuality. However, as I have demonstrated in earlier posts, the stance that "sexual relationships [necessarily] have a procreative purpose" is found as far back as the Jewish reading of Genesis ("male and female He created them" and "be fruitful and multiply") and informs the Jewish objection to homosexuality.

Furthermore, Nathan's attempt to pit John Paul II's "Theology of the Body" against the Father's objection that sex must be tied to procreation fails outright. According to John Paul II, what Nathan describes as "the more sublime characteristics of human nature made in the image and likeness of God" necessarily include male and female sexuality and the innate capacity for motherhood and fatherhood -- all aspects of ourselves must be integrated in a unity that cannot be put aside or separated. Two passages will illustrate what I mean -- first, William E. May from "The Communion of Persons in Marriage and the Conjugal Act":

The conjugal act, as we have already seen, is a kind of act sui generis. It is the personal act of two subjects, husband and wife. In it they "give" themselves to one another and "receive" one another. They do so, however, in different and complementary ways, insofar as this act is possible only by reason of their sexual differences. . . .

The husband cannot, in this act, give himself to his wife in this receiving sort of way unless she gives herself to him by receiving him, and she cannot receive him in this giving sort of way unless he gives himself to her in this receiving sort of way. As the philosopher Robert Joyce says, "the man does not force himself upon the woman, but gives himself in a receiving manner. The woman does not simply submit herself to the man, but receives him in a giving manner."

Secondly, J. Michael Miller elaborates on this capacity to express physiologically the image of God, to speak the truth of the divine with our entire body ("Telling Lies with Our Bodies: What the Pope Thinks About Sex", by J. Michael Miller, C.S.B. Crisis March 1991):

The permanence of the marriage bond rests on recognizing that our sexual language should show not only who we are but also who God is. As the image of God, the conjugal couple must tell the truth about the Trinity whom they reflect. Each divine person is a total and permanent gift of himself to the other. In the same way, a couple forms a permanent covenant.

To be fully authentic, the language of the body must express its fruitfulness. When God "rested" after the work of His creation, He entrusted to the newlyweds the dignity of prolonging His work, of becoming "co-creators" with Him. As fruitful as God's love for His creation, so must a husband and wife's love be for each other. Their unity in the "one flesh" is necessarily linked with the blessing of fertility, that is, of procreation (compare Genesis 1:29).

Masculinity contains within itself the gift of fatherhood just as femininity contains that of motherhood. Through his bodily love, the husband fulfills his wife by gifting her with motherhood, as the woman fulfills her husband by gifting him with fatherhood.

. . . We do not speak two languages with the body: one of love and another of fecundity. The life-giving and love-giving purposes of our sexual language are inseparable from each other.

Returning to our discussion in an earlier post of Humane Vitae's teaching that the procreative cannot be separated from the unitive dimensions of sex, the situation of couples who are infertile for various reasons (or who employ Natural Family Planning during infertile periods), Nathan inquires:

This leads GLBT Catholics to ask: "Why is it wrong when your partner is of the same gender, when you have done nothing to 'obstruct the natural development of the generative process' and even if you regret that there is no (natural) possibility of conception resulting" (Faithful to the Truth, "Procreation")? The answer inevitably reverts back to the issues of complementarity and altruism, because no coherent argument can be made from the procreative purpose of marriage since the promulgation of Humanae Vitae.

I had responded in my previous post with an excerpt from one of Janet Smith's talks: "To use the phrase of the pope, the couple using NFP is not telling a lie with their bodies; they are still allowing sex its full, natural meaning. In short, the naturalness of NFP is obvious: It recognizes fertility as a good and does nothing to deny this good; it operates fully in accord with the laws of nature, which are the laws of God." In its very act, homosexual sex explicitly rejects fertility as a good; it explicitly rejects fatherhood as a good -- these are aspects of our sexuality that the Church believes should be integrated.

I realize that Nathan will be less than satisfied with this reiteration of the Church's teaching, and he'll most likely demand that I respond in depth to Pharsea's challenge (or, as I perceive it, barely concealed hostility) to the Church's understanding of complementarity between male and female. But perhaps the above citations and further reading will assist in this matter.

I invite my readers to offer their thoughts on this topic and suggestions for further reading.

* * *

Nathan ends his post with declaration of his refusal to "consign ourselves to the chasm Rome has made for us in blind obedience to these nonsensical arguments.":

Are we to ignore the longings of our hearts and the callings of our consciences out of ignorant loyalty to the teaching authority? Are we to deny our sexualities, an integral part of our human nature, when any other time Rome would say that human sexuality is good and must be affirmed and accepted?

The Church affirms the inherent good of sexuality, but it is a sexuality that is integrated and "open to the gift of life." At the same time, the Church acknowledges that the sexuality that it affirms is an ideal not easily attained in a fallen world, and only with great struggle and self-sacrifice. Those living with same sex attraction face one kind of trial; those with heterosexual inclinations another, but the Church does not cease to call us both to chastity and sanctity, as it has done for 2,000 years.

To close with a fitting passage from St. Paul, applicable to all: "No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it" (1 Cor. 10:13).

Let Christ and His Church be our guide.

Further Reading

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