“The Sexual Person” (Book Review)

I have just completed a first reading of “The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology (Moral Traditions) “, by the Catholic theologians Todd A. Salzmann and Michael G. Lawler.  I stress here, “a first reading”, as I have no doubt that this will be for me one of those foundational texts that I return to again and again.  After just an introductory acquaintance, I have no intention of attempting here any kind of formal assessment or review, but I do want to share some preliminary thoughts, some of which I propose to expand into full posts a little later.

The constantly evolving, ever-changing  Catholic tradition.

Whatever it is that Vatican spokesmen mean when they refer to the Church’s “constant and unchanging tradition”, it cannot be what the plain English words appear to mean. Across the full range  of sexual ethics, Catholic tradition has changed constantly. This is not only an historical fact, it is also inevitable and in fact demanded by the Magisterium itself. I particularly like the words of a certain Joseph Ratzinger, which highlight the importance of identifying and correcting the “distorting tradition” in the Church:

“Not everything that exists in the Church must for that reason be also a legitimate tradition…. There is a distorting tradition as well as a legitimate tradition, ….[and] …consequently tradition must not be considered only affirmatively but also critically.”

The Distorted Modern Teaching on Marriage and Procreation

The often repeated claim that marriage and sexual intercourse exist primarily for the purposes of procreation, is simply fallacious. It is clear from the Magisterium itself that there are several purposes to both. The additional claim by Pope Paul VI in “Humanae Vitae” that every sexual act must be open to the production of new life, is in fact a distortion of clear earlier statements that the requirement is for the marriage to be open to procreation – not every single sexual act.

The bizarre parallel claim in Humanae Vitae that marriages which are sterile, or which deliberately avoid pregnancy by “Natural” Family Planning, raise serious doubts about the validity of the simultaneous insistence that homosexual activities are necessarily prohibited as not open to procreation.

The Distortions of Natural Law

“Natural law” is widely used as a pretext for the condemnation of homosexual acts, but the concept itself is poorly understood.  Salzmann and Lawler present extensive evidence that a more accurate reading of the concept is in fact supportive of sexual activities between men or between women, in specific circumstances, for people who have a homosexual orientation.

The Distortions of Scripture

It is by now well established that numerous scholars have shown that the traditional use of a half dozen verses from the Bible as clobber texts to condemn all homoerotic acts is based on distortion, relying on misinterpretation, mistranslation, or plain misrepresentation. “The Sexual Person” summarizes these familiar critiques, concluding that the most important feature of the very limited Biblical references to homoerotic acts is that they simply do not take account of the existence of a homosexual orientation as we know it to exist. Recognizing such an attraction, the authors submit, leads to the conclusion that the references to “unnatural acts” in Romans must imply that for people with a natural homosexual orientation, sexual activities with others of the same sex are entirely natural, and so not condemned by Paul.

On the other hand, attempts to force us into heterosexual marriage are indeed attempts to enforce what for us are “unnatural acts” – and so condemned by Paul.

(I would go further, and add that by extension, even enforced celibacy is unnatural, and so condemned by Paul, and also a contravention of natural law, properly understood).

The Distorted Teaching on Cohabitation

Perhaps the most eye-opening chapter of the book for me, was that on cohabitation.  I grew up with the clear understanding from my Catholic education, which I often heard repeated, that all sexual activity before our outside of marriage was expressly forbidden – and that marriage in effect commenced with the marriage ceremony, as solemnized in a Catholic Church, by a Catholic priest, in front of witnesses.  More recently, I have recognized that this idea of marriage as an obligatory sacrament, required before legitimate sexual intercourse, was a relatively modern one.

Until reading “The Sexual Person”, I did not realize quite how modern an idea it is, or how far it is flatly contradicted by the practice of the church for at least three quarters of Christian history, right up to the Council of Trent and even beyond.  Previously, the church wedding (if it took place at all) was not an event that began the process of marriage and legitimized husband and wife living together in a sexual relationship, but merely a public acknowledgement of a partnership that may have begun long before, with mutual consent consummated by immediate sexual intercourse. What today we would call “cohabitation” did not precede the marriage – it initiated it. It did precede the public wedding – but that was of no importance to the sacramentality of the marriage itself, or to the legality of the sexual relationshipthat accompanied it.

For most of Catholic tradition, it is then clear that any conception of sin in cohabitation before marriage was impossible – as soon as cohabitation began, the marriage commenced. Applying this reasoning to the modern situation, where (for good reasons) we accept the importance of a public commitment in a wedding ceremony, we should also recognize that marriage is a process, not a one-day event. The process begins with the private commitment to each other. As long as the cohabitation is part of a nuptial process leading up to marriage, and not a simple shacking up, Catholic tradition suggests that we should recognize and accept cohabitation prior to the wedding as part of the marriage, and so fully valid.

Gay marriage and Catholic Tradition.

Here I move on to more treacherous ground, but as I read in this book so many extracts from Church documents on our sexual lives and on marriage and family, I was struck by how littleamendment is needed to extend church endorsement of the value of marriage, as sacrament and as an institution furthering both private and public good, to include same sex couples alongside all others.

The Theological Ferment Under Way.

“The Sexual Person” has made waves in the press, largely as a result of the US Bishops’ criticism of it. However, it is far from unique in highlighting the contradictions and failings of current orthodoxy on sexual ethics. It now becomes clearer than ever to me that there is a fundamental rethink under way. This has not yet broken through into major papal pronouncements or Vatican documents – but I am certain that they will soon start to do so. When they do, they will no doubt be accompanied once again by the comforting assurances that these new, more human and sympathetic understandings of human sexuality have been around for decades (as they have), and so form part of the “constant and unchanging Catholic tradition”.

La plus ça change…..


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Pope Benedict’s Strong Argument for Gay Marriage, Queer Families.

Last Sunday, I picked up a little book at the Soho Masses bookstall called “Christians and Sexuality in the Time of AIDS“, a useful little book, which I bought at a ridiculously low bargain price. Some of the insights have little to do directly with the main theme, and it is one of these that is relevant here, an observation made by James Alison in his introduction, writing about Pope Benedict XVI and the nature of his theology.  James has frequently observed that when we respond too quickly or too superficially to the pope’s reported remarks, we often underestimate his thinking, which is substantially more nuanced than we usually recognize. In his position, he argues, Benedict cannot do other than repeat the well-worn, established magisterial positions on topical issues.

The really interesting questions surrounding what a pope is doing are never the politically immediate headline grabbers, but always the small, apparently insignificant tinkerings around the edges which are either going to make change possible over time, or try to block it.

When I read these words, they brought into focus for me the speech that Benedict  gave to a group of Italian politicians and public officials last Friday, which has been widely interpreted as an attack on gay marriage. This is not the way I interpreted the speech: instead, I wrote (in the post below) that the reference to “marriage between a man and a woman”, and to the forces undermining it, were curiously minor. The main thrust of the speech was more usefully seen as in praise of strong families – which could equally well apply to the families of same sex parents as to any other.   After reading James Alison, I thought how perfectly his warning applies to the present case: well, of course he made the obligatory noises about marriage between a man and a woman (how could he not?) – but the headline writers have missed the main points. With just a little “apparently insignificant tinkerings around the edges”, this attack on gay marriage can instead be read as a statement in praise of all families – including those which are queer.

Continue reading Pope Benedict’s Strong Argument for Gay Marriage, Queer Families.

Joseph and His Fabulous Queer Technicolour Dreamcoat.

Sometimes, stories and images are so familiar to us, that we completely fail to see their significance. The story of Joseph and his coat is familiar to us all from childhood Bible stories – and even more familiar as Lloyd-Webber’s Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. Ignore the main story for now, and just focus on that coat of many colours.

In the modern world, colour is everywhere, so much so that we hardy notice it unless it is used particularly well, or until it is unexpectedly absent. It was not always so. In the Biblical world, clothing was mostly drab: dyes of all kinds were costly , brightly coloured cloth of any kind was an expensive luxury. It is not surprising that Joseph’s brothers would have been jealous of the special favour shown by their father, and wished to sell him into slavery.

Joseph sold into slavery, Edward Knippers


Joseph sold into slavery, Edward Knippers

But there could be more to the story than first appears: this was not just a coloured coat, but a very specific type – a coat of many colours, in stripes. Just such a coat was typically worn by a specific group of people – a distinctly queer group.

Consider this extract from “Coming Out Spiritually“, in which he draws on Conner, ” Blossom of Bone“:

These were the qedeshim, who served as priests to the Canaanite goddess Athirat. They were responsible for the upkeep of her temples, and also engaged in ritual temple prostitution, engaging in sex with the devotees of the goddess to achieve enhanced states of consciousness. (It is possible that several of the biblical texts of terror that are used to condemn sex between men were in fact referring specifically to these temple prostitutes – and so were directed at idolatry, rather than at homoerotic activity itself).

Connor notes an interesting connection between the multicolour garments of the qedishim and Joseph’s “coat of many colours”, which, at least based on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s portrayal, was “fabulous”. Although Connor’s mission is not to “out” Joseph, he presents other clues which make one wonder, such as the fact that Potiphar, the man who bought Joseph from his brothers and brought him to Egypt as his servant, was actually a eunuch priest of a pagan goddess.  Furthermore, the interpretation of dreams was one of the qualities for which the qedishim were known; and indeed, biblical writings reflect that prophetic dreams were commonplace with Joseph.

This needs some fact-checking: most obviously, Potiphar did not buy Joseph directly from his brothers, but from a band of Ishmaelites who were the original purchasers. It is certainly true though that male temple prostitution was commonplace in the Mediterranean world, including in the land of  Canaan, and that in cultures all around the world, men who were attracted to men or to female gender roles were often regarded as possessing special spiritual gifts – including the prophetic interpretation of dreams.



De la HuertaComing Out Spiritually: The Next Step

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