In his useful review of Catholics theologians’ work on homosexuality, James Keenan organises his material in three broad divisions: critical reaction, specific moral theological investigations, and power, language, and experience. “Experience” then is formally included in the third of these divisions – but in fact, the importance of experience is a recurring theme throughout.
For instance, under critical reaction to the CDF’s 1986 Pastoral Letter, he includes the complaint by Mary Segers that the Letter “succumbs to the tendency to focus on homosexuality as a male phenomenon and to ignore completely the experience of lesbian women.” By ignoring women’s experiences, the Letter overlooks “the many diverse forms of human friendship and affection which bind people together in relationships and communities”. But it was not only women’s experience, with the diversity of their relationships that was ignored. Men’s experience and relationships were also ignored, with the emphasis on a relentless focus on genital acts. The experience of being a gay man is not simply a matter of sexual attraction and genital obsessions, but also a matter of relationships. The dominican theologian Gerald Moore puts it precisely in “A Question of Truth”, noting that a same – sex attraction is more about who one “takes delight in”, than who one has sex with, and the Baptist gay theologian does even speak of sexual orientation, but of “affectional” orientation.
Keenan also includes in his discussion of critical reaction, the observation by J. Giles Milhaven that it is not only gays and lesbians whose experience is ignored, but that of all loving couples:
“Catholic theologians are only beginning to recognize that there is a number of different kinds of couples who out of their personal lives make the point to the teaching Church. They say to the Church: sex is important for the two of us. You do not take its importance into account in your teaching. You must not know it.”
To this, the only possible response can be of course they “must not know it”. How could they, having taken vows of celibacy for themselves, have any personal experience of loving sexual relationships on which to base that understanding?
In the second division of his analysis on, on “moral investigations”, Keenan begins by noting that the judgement on the moral acceptance of homosexuality requires a judgement on whether it is “good and “normal”, and lists several theologians who have concluded that while not matching the ideal of heterosexual marriage, for some individuals, same – sex relationships should be judged as subjectively good and normal – for them. This then, raises the challenge of addressing the paradox of general norms that insist that such relationships are wrong – but subjectively, in particular lives, they may be good. To resolve this conflict,
many moral theologians have accepted the responsibility to examine the morality of the lives of gay and lesbian persons and have used one of three traditional resources: biblical theology, natural law, and theological anthropology.
But to examine the lives of gay and lesbian, requires an awareness of the experience of those lives. This is especially important in the approaches from natural law, for which an important concept is that what is “natural” is that which leads to human flourishing – and to discern what leads to human flourishing for gay and lesbian people, we need to listen to their experience:
Following Margaret Farley, Pope makes the case for virtuous gay and lesbian living with an appeal to experience, that is, to “the particular stories of those who live integrated, virtuous and flourishing lives as covenanted homosexuals.”
He goes on to note though, the immense irony of the Vatican’s own insistence on the importance of listening to the voice of experience, of every kind – simultaneously with its attempt to exclude, quite deliberately, the experience of gay and lesbian people.
Cristina Traina reflects on Karol Wojtyla’s forty-year-old treatise on sexuality (66) which opens with the words, “This work is open to every echo of experience.” She remarks, “Forty years later, experience is perhaps both the most-cited factor and wildest variable in debates over methods and questions in ethics.”
(Stephen) Pope’s appeal to experience is not without irony, since magisterial teaching specifically condemns the sexual activity of gays and lesbian persons. From the magisterium’s point of view, it is an a priori that the sexual experience of gays and lesbian would be an inadmissible factor in determining moral guidelines for gay and lesbian persons. Nonetheless, most moral theologians writing on the topic think otherwise and see the exclusion of experience as inconsistent with other magisterial utterances.
It is not only the experience of the large number of people who have found genuine human flourishing in healthy, loving same – sex relationships, that theologians should be reflecting on – but also the extensive damage that has been caused in the lives of vast numbers of young people especially, by attempts to abide by the orthodox rules. We know for instance, that many lesbian and gay Catholics have concluded that the teaching as it stands leaves no space within it for them, and so have walked away – and for some, into lives of promiscuity and hedonism. For many other young people, the impossibility of reconciling the rigidity of the magisterium with what they know of themselves, has contributed significantly to the excessively high prevalence among LGBT teens of suicide, homelessness and substance abuse. This level of experience too, should be factored in:
n a lengthy investigation, Michael Hartwig argues that church teachings are positively harmful when they institutionally mandate sexual abstinence for anyone who is not in a heterosexual marriage. Elsewhere he too cites Pope John Paul II on whether experience and research have a role in moral determinations. Regarding the Galileo affair, the pope argued that “the central error of theologians was the failure to distinguish the meaning of Scripture from the meaning given to it by interpreters. If there seems to be a contradiction between Scripture and the discoveries of `clear and certain reasoning,’ the interpreter of Scripture `does not understand it correctly.” Hartwig leaves the reader with the magisterium’s apparent inconsistent appeal to scriptural interpretation, experience, and scientific data.
In his third division, “power, language and experience”, Keenan notes how intimately connected have been the exercise of church power, and the ability to hear the voices of gay experience – especially for clergy, and for others such as teachers, in positions of authority and influence. The exercise of this power forces many people firmly into the closet – but what is needed, is more openly gay role models.
For instance, invoking the research of James Whitehead and Evelyn Eaton Whitehead, Gerald Coleman warned against a Catholic school teacher “coming out” as being always “misguided” and “pedagogically and psychologically flawed.” The Whiteheads responded very differently, commenting that “the apparent absence of gays and lesbians among the Catholic leadership plays some part in the continuing prejudice against homosexual persons” and that “closeted lives, however holy, provide no wider lessons in religious maturing.”
However, the interconnection between power and experience is not all a one – way street, in which power enforces silence. It can also work the other way – when experience is not silenced, we have the opportunity to acquire a certain power of our own, in which we are able to not simply inform the Church about our own lives, but also to convey much deeper lessons, to the clear advantage of the Church as a whole:
…..the need to develop a “rhetoric of rich moral description” is more urgent than ever. Two recent works highlight how power and language emerging from the experience of lesbian and gay Christians become living concepts not only for these persons but also for the Church. Xavier Seubert acknowledges that “[h]omosexuality has consistently been judged by the measure and requirements for authenticity not its own,” and proposes homosexuality as a “salvific metaphor.” …… “the most thoroughgoing perceptions which gays and lesbians have of themselves … is the feeling of being marginalized; it is lived bodily experience.” ….. Being pushed to the margin can mean being at a threshold of possibilities and having the freedom to engage those possibilities. In this sense the homosexual body is a threshold reality.” …. Seubert hopes that “homosexuality can be a new name for its own embodying manifestation of Godlife.”
James Alison’s brilliant work sets a new course for the open debate. Here he describes his own conversion of being first like Jonah convinced of his own marginalized righteousness and then “spluttering” forth from the belly of the whale his own experience of deliverance. Alison tells the story of having been “caught and held through the depths in which the utterly terrifying and yet completely gentle, unambiguous `yes’ of God to suggest into being the consciousness of a son, to bring forth the terrifying novelty of an unbound conscience.” Freed, Alison enters deeply into Scripture. Being gay and having been defined as an outsider for the sake of those inside the Church, he sees in the healing of the man born blind Jesus’ own command never to marginalize another so as to define oneself. Here is the victor who offers an embrace and a kiss instead of rejection and denial. Turning away from the variety of devices with which we empower ourselves at the cost of others, Alison turns to the birth of the Christian conscience that finds consolation in God’s revolutionary movements of inverting all things. This refreshing, prayerful glimpse of the depths of one’s faith helps readers to recognize that invariably the entire open debate is about ourselves and how we treat one another in the new dispensation.