Bishop Robinson on "The Offence Against God", "God’s Purpose"

Speaking at New Ways Ministries’ conference 2012 on  the theme From Water to Wine:  Lesbian/Gay Catholics and Relationships, Bishop Robinson began by demonstrating that we cannot hope for a  change Catholic teaching on homosexual relationships, until we first achieve a change in teaching on heterosexual relationships. He then devoted a major part of his address to demonstrating just why that teaching is unsound, producing three discrete arguments:

  • The first addresses the Church’s claim that the essence of sexual sin is a direct offence against God, irrespective of any harm caused to any human being.
  • The second reason for change is that the statements of the Church appear to be assertions rather than arguments.
  • The third argument is that the teaching emphasises the God‐given nature of the physical acts, rather than on how such acts affect persons and relationships.

After demonstrating why present teaching needs reform, Bishop Robinson moved on to a positive basis for a new Catholic teaching, and then to a discussion of Catholic ethics for homosexual relationships. I will get to these later. For now, I consider here only the first of these three arguments:

First Argument (Against Catholic Teaching on Heterosexual Morality):

The teaching of the church  that sexual sin is that is a direct offence against God raises two serious questions, one concerning nature and the other concerning God.

The claim that non -procreative sexual activity is a sin against God rests on the belief that this contravenes “God’s purpose” for sex, opposed to the natural order that God established. One problem with this, is that observations of “nature” show clearly that this is not so. There is abundant evidence that in the natural world of the animal kingdom, many species practice a wide range of sexual activities that cannot lead to procreation, including sex before reaching full maturity and fertility, oral and anal sex, masturbation (alone or with others), genital rubbing, and homosexual activities. Some primates even manufacture and use sex toys – breaking off vine sections for use as dildoes, and fruits adapted as masturbation aids.

But that is not the objection Robinson raises. He finds another, one that I have not found before. Is there any other context, he asks, where theologians identify a sin on the grounds that it is against God’s purpose? If there are, he asks further, why do church documents not list them? To demonstrate the absurdity of theologians deriving a single, inviolable “God’s purpose” for a particular human faculty, he refers to the rather trivial case of human vision. If the purpose of eyes is to see where we are going, is it then a sin when driving, to use rear view mirrors, which show us where we have been?

There are numerous other examples that he could have used to demonstrate the futility of deducing a single “purpose” of God in any part of creation. One that I would certainly not be acceptable to the Vatican was once used by post-reformation Protestant theologians. Observing that women have narrower shoulders and broader hips than men, they deduced that God’s purpose for women was to bear children.  Some Catholic theologians might accept this – but not their next conclusion, that this implied that for women to live celibate lives in convents was clearly in contravention of God’s purpose for them.

In the sexual context, I wonder about the tongue. It would seem self-evident that this has two purposes: for speech, and in eating. The Church’s teaching on sex is that it too has two purposes, unitive and procreative, but that these must both be present for sex to be licit. For the tongue, any attempt to apply both uses simultaneously, eating and talking at once, is clearly not ideal. Then, there is another, less obvious use of the tongue, in kissing and in love-making. Following the Church’s reasoning on any contravention of God’s “purpose” as sinful, are we to conclude that introducing the tongue in love-making is a third purpose for the organ – or that such use is a contravention of its two intended purposes, and so sinful?

There are many more objections that could be raised to the whole idea of identifying a particular “purpose” of God, but Robinson goes on to another issue entirely, the suggestion that any contravention of such purpose is an offence against God, to which he proposes a remarkably simple riposte: God is bigger than that, and not so easily offended.

Robinson’s full text is posted on his own website. This is the extract relating to his “first argument”.

First Argument

The first argument is that the teaching of the church says that the essence of sexual sin is that it is a direct offence against God because, irrespective of whether harm is caused to any human being, it is a violation of what is claimed to be the divine and natural order that God established. It is claimed that God inserted into nature itself the demand that every human sexual act be both unitive and procreative. If it does not contain both of these elements, it is against “nature” as established by God. This raises two serious questions, one concerning nature and the other concerning God.

In relation to nature, should not the church’s argument give a number of examples of other fields where God has given a divine purpose to some created thing, such that it would be a sin against God to use that thing in any other way? Or is this the only example there is of God giving a divine purpose to a created thing? If there are other examples, why do church documents not list them? I remember reading years ago the mocking argument that the natural God‐given purpose of eyes is to look forwards, so rear vision mirrors in cars are against nature and hence immoral. Granted that this is a mocking argument, does it not raise questions about what we mean by “nature” and how difficult it is to draw moral consequences from a claim to a divinely established nature?

In relation to God, the argument was used in the past that striking a king was far more serious than striking a commoner, and, for the same reason, an offence against God was far more serious than an offence against a human being. In this view, the most serious sins were those directly against God. In practice, this applied above all to sins of blasphemy and sexual sins, and it helps to explain why, in the Catholic Church, sexual morality has long been given a quite exaggerated importance.

When a person takes great offence at even a trivial remark, we tend to speak of that person as a “little” person, while a person who can shrug off most negative comments is a “big” person. My reading of the bible leads me to believe in a very big God indeed who is not easily offended by direct offences. I believe, for instance, that God shrugs off much of what is called “blasphemy” as an understandable human reaction to the felt injustice of evil and suffering in this world. I do not believe that God is in the least offended when parents who have just lost a child rage in terrible anger against God.

In this vein, I must ask whether God will be offended by any sexual thought or action considered solely as an offence against an order established by God, before any question of its effect on other persons, oneself or the community is taken into account.

The parable of the prodigal son may help us here3. The younger son had received the entire share of the property that would come to him and he had
wasted it. He had no right to one further square centimetre of the property, for the entire remaining property would now go by strict right to the elder son (“You are with me always and all I have is yours” v.31). The father respected his elder son’s rights and would take nothing from him. When, however, it came to the hurt the prodigal son had caused to his father by abandoning him and wasting the property he had worked so hard for, the father brushed this aside out of love for his son and insisted that he be welcomed and treated as a son rather than a servant. The message is surely that God cares about the rights of human beings and what they do to one another, but is big enough, loving enough and forgiving enough not to get angry at direct offences against God. May we ask whether the god portrayed in this parable would condemn a person to eternal  punishment for sometimes getting unitive and procreative purposes out of a perceived ideal harmony in the midst of the turbulence of sexuality?

For centuries the church has taught that every sexual sin is a mortal sin (4) According to that teaching, even deliberately deriving pleasure from thinking about sex, no matter how briefly, is a mortal sin. The teaching may not be proclaimed aloud today as much as before, but it was proclaimed by many popes (5) it has never been retracted and it has affected countless people.

The teaching fostered belief in an incredibly angry God, for this God would condemn a person to an eternity in hell for a single unrepented moment of
deliberate pleasure arising from sexual desire. I simply do not believe in such a God. Indeed, I positively reject such a God.

Does it not follow that there are serious dangers in basing the church’s moral teaching concerning sex on the concept of direct offences against God? It must be added that, in the response to revelations of sexual abuse, this became a most serious problem, for far too many church authorities saw the offence primarily in terms of a sexual offence against God, to be treated according to the criteria governing such offences ‐ repentance, confession, absolution, total forgiveness by God and hence restoration to the status quo. This contributed greatly to the practice of moving offenders from one parish to another. There was never going to be an adequate response to abuse as long as many people thought primarily in terms of sexual offences against God rather than harm caused to the victims.

3 Lk. 15:11-32

4 See Noldin-Schmitt, Summa Theologiae Moralis, Feliciani Rauch, Innsbruck, 1960 Vol.I, Supplement
De Castitate, p.17, no.2. The technical term constantly repeated was mortale ex toto genere suo. The
sin of taking pleasure from thinking about sex was called delectatio morosa.

5 For example, Clement VII (1592-1605) and Paul V (1605-1621) said that those who denied this
teaching should be denounced to the Inquisition.

Books:

Robinson, Bishop Geoffrey: Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church

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