Category Archives: Sexuality and gender

Alison:Does "Objectively Disordered" Mean Anything At All?

In the CDF Hallowe’en Letter, possibly the most offensive and damaging element was the labelling of the homosexual orientation as “intrinsically disordered” – but just what does “disordered” in fact mean? Science has shown from mental health and from animal biology that it is entirely natural, and not in any scientific sense disordered. Defenders of the Vatican line respond to this criticism of the label by insisting that it does not mean what it appears to do in common speech. It has, they say, a specifically theological sense, which the critics are ignoring. My question then becomes, “Just what does ‘disordered’ mean, theologically?’ “

Beyond meaning simply that it is not ordered to procreation, which we can counter (and Bishop Robinson has done) by demonstrated that much else in human and animal sexuality is likewise not ordered to procreation, I have not yet worked out just what this supposed deep theological meaning might be. The Catholic theologian James Alison has now illuminated this for me. If I understand him correctly, I don’t understand the theological meaning of the term – because there is none, that makes any theological sense. The use of the term is itself  disordered.

In his long interview for Vox Nova, Brett Salkeld asked Alison about this term. The interviewer first described how he had once forced Lifestyle News to retract a claim, widely assumed but rejected by mental health professionals, that the term refers to a psychological disorder, and asked Alison for his own views on the “origins” of homosexuality. Instead, Alison responded by addressing the meaning (or rather, the absence of any meaning) in the term “disordered”.

The heart of Alison’s reasoning here, is that either the term means something, and or it does not. If the former, and it does mean something, then it should be possible to understand it at least by analogy with other conditions described in other contexts as “objectively disordered”. In that case, we should be able to deduce a meaning for “disordered” by a clear statement of just what it is that is its opposite – what is meant by the “ordered” condition, against which the supposedly disordered condition of homosexuality falls short?  The Vatican theologians have conceded that the condition is entirely natural, and so not disordered in this sense – but they have also not offered any clear statement of what meaning it does have.  And so, we are forced to reject the first possibility, that the term means something.

We are forced then to turn to the other possibility, that the term has no meaning “in any reality that can be measured”. It is simply a verbal construct used by those theologians to get to the conclusions they want to reach. This leads Alison to describe it as “unstable” in meaning. He points out that in traditional Catholic theology (and Alison is a very traditional theologian), “the acts flowing from a neutral or positive inclination could not be intrinsically evil”. Any moral judgement on this inclination must depend on their use. From this it follows that if the  homosexual orientation is morally neutral (which is agreed), then the judgement that homosexual acts that follow naturally from that orientation are disordered does not logically follow: it makes no more sense that to say that it’s OK to be left-handed, just don’t write left-handed.

Here are the question that led to Alison’s observation, and two extracts from his response. (The full interview has been published in two instalments at Vox Nova, and at James Alison’s website)

7. Some time ago I engaged in a lengthy e-mail exchange with the editor-in-chief of Lifesitenews because one of their articles had claimed that it was the teaching of the Catholic Church that homosexuality was a psychological disorder. After much wrangling, I was successful in getting them to edit the article. It is not Catholic teaching that homosexuality is a psychological disorder. In fact, my reading of the Catechism is that the official stance on this question is one of agnosticism. We don’t know the causes of homosexuality. What do you think the Church’s position is on this question? What are your beliefs about the origins of homosexuality? What factors strike you as the most important? What are your thoughts about homosexuality that has roots in sexual trauma or other aspects of a broken past?

I’m so glad that I wasn’t involved in your discussion with Lifesitenews! To judge by what you say, I think that I would simultaneously agree and disagree with both of you. Personally I think that the current teaching of the Roman Congregations in this area is of unstable meaning. The Congregations both insist that the inclination itself must be considered objectively disordered, and yet fight shy of committing themselves to a sense in which this claim has incidence in reality. Well, either their claim means something, in which case it enters into the realm of that which can be studied and understood by analogy with other objective disorders, having as its backdrop a clear claim about the proper order by comparison with which it is some sort of defect. Or, on the other hand, the claim has no incidence in any reality that can be measured, and is simply the verbally necessary logical ground which the CDF must stake out if it wants to maintain that the acts flowing from the inclination are intrinsically evil.

This would be a consequence of their knowing that in Catholic Theology, acts flowing from a neutral or positive inclination could not be intrinsically evil, but would be good or bad according to use. So, in the one case, the claim would be falsifiable by the human sciences, and in the other, we would be obliged to derive our understanding of what is from what is forbidden, or “can never be approved”, a voluntarist position smuggled in by the back door, and the claim would be something like a de facto defection from Catholic teaching concerning grace, nature, faith and reason as set out with admirable clarity by Pope Benedict in his Regensburg address.

My own belief is that being gay is a regularly occurring non-pathological minority variant in the human condition, and that an appropriate analogy is left-handedness, which also, as it happens, used to be regarded as some sort of defect in a normatively right-handed humanity. I’ve arrived at this position having, as an educated amateur, followed the studies and arguments back and forth over many years, and notice that this position is tending to be confirmed massively the more that we know and see of gay people who are able to live their lives openly. I hope I would be open to any emerging evidence that my view was wrong, though I’m aware how easily any of us can become locked into convenient self-deceptions and self-reinforcing ideological cocoons. Like all other educated amateurs gathering what I can from disciplines in which I have no expertise, what I know about the aetiology of same-sex desire is regularly being updated as the field advances, and I’m sure that we are in the early days of scientific knowledge about such things.

As part of my personal history, I should say that I remember my own relief on realizing that not all searches for causality are helpful. Part of my motivation in the search for a cause of being gay earlier in my life was the need to find “something that has gone wrong that I can put right”, and it was good, spiritually fruitful, to discover that the question: “what went wrong in where I came from?” is actually not a useful one. More helpful is to ask: “how can I enrich where I’m going starting from where I am, however this has come about?” I wish I could find the reference, but I remember a quote from St Augustine, tired of nit-picking arguments about the finer details of Original Sin, insisting that “it’s not where we come from that is important, but where we are going” or words to that effect.

Books by James Alison:

Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay

On Being Liked

Undergoing God: Dispatches from the Scene of a Break-in

Broken Hearts and New Creations: Intimations of a Great Reversal

 

Lesbian, Gay Catholics: Emerging From the Shadows

Here’s one more piece in an expanding pile of evidence that while formal doctrine on gay and lesbian Catholics remains unchanged, ordinary mainstream Catholics are making a welcome for them in church. “US Catholic” is not a source I would normally regard as particularly radical or progressive, but they have just published not just one article, but an entire special section, dealing with the place of Lesbian and Gay Catholics in church, some of them highly topical: for example, see the piece originally published way back in 1997 that argued that the church would benefit from permitting same – sex weddings, in church!

Here’s the US Catholic full listing of articles, with links. I will be picking up on some of these for more extended discussion and reflection in later posts, but for now – explore them for yourselves. I would be most interested in your responses: which do you think are the most important and/or interesting?

US Catholic Special Section: Gay and lesbian Catholics 

While legislation regarding same-sex marriage may have pushed gay and lesbian issues to the fore in recent years, the history of gay and lesbian Catholics and their relationship with the church has been a long, winding road. U.S. Catholic has been covering the issue for decades. We’ve collected a sample of articles from recent issues and from the archives by and about gay and lesbian Catholics. Read on to learn more.

Pride and prejudice

Gays and lesbians have made big strides toward acceptance in society at large, but many struggle to be at home in a church still unsure about their place at the table.

The mamas and the papas

The parents of GLBT Catholics have a lot to say about the church and their children.

Pride and prejudice: A timeline

A brief history of the relationship between GLBT Catholics and their church.

Mom, Dad: I’m gay

The news of a son’s or daughter’s homosexuality brings with it many challenges. Some parents move through the tears and isolation into helping the church do a better job of welcoming their children.

Mind the gap

Which path do we choose when the twain of experience and church teaching don’t meet?

A good fit?

Church teaching on gay and lesbian people must reflect their dignity as God’s daughters and sons.

What I learned from Father Dan

Many gay priests have served and continue to serve our church well. Let’s not make them scapegoats for the sins of others.

One gay priest’s story

Defying the current scapegoating and stereotypes, a priest shares his journey and struggle

Thoughts from a gay teacher in a Catholic school

A junior high teacher yearns to be a positive gay role model in her Catholic school. But she wonders, “Does the church love me as much as I love it?

Let’s watch our language about gays and lesbians

Official statements calling gays and lesbians “disordered” and “violent” do little to make them feel welcomed and respected in the church. A pastor argues that it’s time to stop the name-calling and start treating gays and lesbians as brothers and sisters in Christ

Gay and lesbian Catholics beg to differ

Recognition of same-sex marriage is only one of the hotly contested issues involving gay and lesbian Catholics. There are many sides of the debate about homosexuality and the church.

Why we never married

A Roman Catholic man, former gay activist, and veteran of over a decade in a same-sex relationship argues why he and his partner have chosen a celibate relationship.

Let’s invite gay and lesbian Catholics to a church wedding

In this 1997 article that accompanies the one above, one Catholic argues that same-sex marriage would allow the church to encourage more loving, nurturing, and lasting relationships.

I promise to do my best

How one community struggles with the Boy Scouts’ anti-gay policies.

We can be better than bitter

There is room in the church for all human beings, no matter which way your sexuality tilts.

Out of the closet and into your living room

For most of the 20th century, movies and television have cast gay and lesbian characters as deviant bad guys. But as attitudes in the larger public change, so has Hollywood’s portrayal of gays.

US Catholic.org.

(What I am not seeing, here or anywhere else, is comparable attention to the issues raised by gender identity or intersex, and the particular challenges  that these present to simplistic Catholic assumptions of a binary gender divide).

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

Robinson: Hetero/Homo, Catholic Sexual Teaching Stands (Or Falls) Together

In his address to the New Ways Ministry Conference last week,  Bishop Geoffrey Robinson dared to say on the record what no other has done before,   but what an unknown number of other bishops are thinking or saying privately, many theologians and priests are saying publicly, and the majority of Catholics are doing, anyway.  He said in effect, that the entire construct of Catholic sexual teaching, from top to bottom, is a nonsense and needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.

He was speaking to the New Ways Ministry conference,  From Water to Wine:  Lesbian/Gay Catholics and Relationships. For an audience of primarily lesbians and gay men, what they probably most wanted to hear was something specific to them (and got it), but first, there was a lot more. Before moving on to LGBT relationships, he spent a major part of his text on the fundamental problem in Church teaching that underlies and undermines its entire structure of sexual doctrine: a grievously flawed understanding of the “purpose” of sex. He notes, correctly, that there is no possibility of a change in teaching on same -sex relationships until the Church has first confronted the failings in heterosexual relationships.

The thesis of his paper is in three parts:

  1. There is no possibility whatsoever of a change in the teaching of the Catholic Church on the subject of homosexual acts unless and until there is first a change in its teaching on heterosexual acts;
  2. There is a serious need for change in the Church’s teaching on heterosexual acts;
  3. If and when this change occurs, it will inevitably have its effect on teaching on homosexual acts.

I will be commenting on this important address in a series of posts throughout this week. Today, I just want to cover the importance of his first statement:

There is no possibility whatsoever of a change in the teaching of the Catholic Church on the subject of homosexual acts unless and until there is first a change in its teaching on heterosexual acts.

I have often heard the argument that Church teaching is not discriminating against lesbians and gay men in denying them licit sexual expression, because it asks of us no more than it asks of anyone else: no sex outside of marriage, or which is not open to procreation. Leaving aside the obvious rejoinder that the Church does not allow us to marry, we can equally well turn this on its head: the Church is as unjust in its treatment of all unmarried Catholics, or those who are married but not yet ready to start a family.

There are three core components of Catholic sexual doctrine that all rest on one basic assumption, that sex is only licit when it serves to fulfil the dual purpose of expressing love between two persons, and is open to new life. That’s the foundation upon which all else rests – but in the real world, outside of Vatican ivory towers, hardly anyone actually believes it. Masturbation, contraception, and homosexual relationships are all clearly prohibited by the requirement of procreation.  Other elements of teaching, like the prohibition on sexual intercourse before marriage, or outside of it, follow as a matter of course. Without contraception, there must be no risk of pregnancy outside of marriage.

If the premise is sound, then it becomes impossible to reject any one of these three pillars of  Church teaching. Conversely, if any one of them is formally reversed, then the premise is automatically rejected, placing in doubt the validity of the other two. Yet we know that the overwhelming majority of ordinary Catholics either condone or practice at least one of the three. The obvious conclusion is that either the vast majority of Catholics, those whose understanding of sex comes from those with real world experience of love, sex and relationships are at best in error, or even in a state of grievous sin, or that the ivory tower theologians, those whose sexual understanding comes from abstract reasoning based on theology manuals, are the ones in error – and the premise, and the entire sexual teaching, is unsound.

This is how Robinson puts it in the introductory section of his address:

The constantly repeated argument of the Catholic Church is that God created human sex for two reasons: as a means of expressing and fostering love between a couple (the unitive aspect) and as the means by which new human life is brought into being (the procreative aspect). The argument then says that the use of sex is “according to nature” only when it serves both of these Godgiven purposes, and that both are truly present only within marriage, and even then only when intercourse is open to new life, so that all other use of the sexual faculties is morally wrong .

If the starting point is that every single sexual act must be both unitive and procreative, there is no possibility of approval of homosexual acts. The Catechism of the Catholic Church indeed deals with the question with quite extraordinary brevity: “(Homosexual acts) are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity.”

If this is the starting point, there is little else to be said. There is no possibility of change concerning homosexual acts within this teaching, and it is futile to look for it, for homosexual acts do not possess the procreative element as the Church understands that element. If teaching on homosexual acts is ever to change, the basic teaching governing all sexual acts must first change.

The full text is posted on his own website. Later, I will discuss the rest of it.

Bishop urges change in all church teaching on sexual relationships

Sooner or later, it had to happen. Ordinary Catholics living in the real world have known it for decades, moral theologians know it, priests in Austria, Germany, Belgium and Ireland have been demanding it, and an unknown number of bishops recognize it privately. Now, at least on bishop is saying it publicly: the officially authorized doctrine on human sexuality, in all its aspects, is fundamentally and intrinsically disordered, and has to change.

Bishop Geoffrey Robinson will not be the last bishop to make this call – expect many more to follow. It will take time, but this will become the mainstream view. The only questions in my mind, are how long will it take, and how will they manage the admission.

At the Seventh National Symposium on Catholicism and Homosexuality, retired Australian Bishop Geoffrey Robinson called Friday for “a new study of everything to do with sexuality” — a kind of study that he predicted “would have a profound influence on church teaching concerning all sexual relationships, both heterosexual and homosexual.”

“If [church] teaching on homosexual acts is ever to change, the basic teaching governing all sexual acts must change,” he said.

Robinson, a priest since 1960 and auxiliary bishop of Sydney from 1984 until his retirement for health reasons in 2004, told the Baltimore symposium, sponsored by New Ways Ministry, that “because sex is so vital a way of expressing love, sex is always serious.”

That view, espoused by the church, stands in contrast to the general perception of modern society, which “appears to be saying more and more that sex is not in itself serious,” he said.

For the church to deal with sex seriously, however, does not in itself mean that the church must continue to accept uncritically its traditional understandings of sexual morality, he said.

National Catholic Reporter.

There are of course, several rebuttals to my confident prediction above. Many will be made, including some by my readers here/

Bishop Robinson is retired, and so no longer in the mainstream. His opinions, the sceptics will say, no longer count.

Yes, and that’s precisely the point. Because he is retired, he has more freedom to speak his mind, without fear of losing his job and home. We can be pretty certain that what he is saying publicly, many others are thinking or saying privately.

New Ways is not officially recognised

He was speaking at the New Ways Ministry conference in Baltimore, and New Ways has been routinely criticized by the oligarchs as not a “Catholic” organization – by which they mean, not one formally approved and sanctioned by themselves. Again, that’s precisely the point. Free from having to watch their words for fear of offending the oligarchs, the people of New Ways, and those who speak to them, are able to speak openly and honestly.

He is only one among thousands of bishops.

Yes, but see again the response above: what one is saying publicly, many others are thinking or saying privately. Besides, he is not the only one – just the first (that I know of) to address his call to all elements of sexual teaching. Others have said the same thing about specific parts of teaching. On homosexuality, Cardinal Schonborn said nearly two years ago that it is time to shift the emphasis from genital acts, to the quality of our relationships. In the many months since, he has still not been rebutted for the statement, and instead, a number of other bishops followed, saying much the same thing. In Westminster, Archbishop Vincent Nichols acknowledged that there is value in legal protections in civil unions or partnerships.

On contraception, it is well known not only that the majority of Catholics reject the teaching, but also that in many cases they do so with the support and sometimes encouragement of their priests, confessors or spiritual directors – many of whom are privately backed by their bishops.

It is not possible to separate the separate strands of sexual teaching into independent elements. Underpinning them all, is a demonstrably unsound claim that every sexual act must be open to procreation. Remove that assumption from one element, and you remove it from all. The whole house of cards collapses at a stroke.

There’s much, much more to say on this, and more evidence to produce to justify my conclusion. I will return to it later.

For now, I will simply repeat, that this statement by Bishop Robinson is not the end of the story. More bishops will follow, this discussion will be moving inexorably into more public debate.

Related Posts

 

 

Intersex, Women Bishops, and the Body of Christ

The story of Rev. Sally / Selwyn Gross neatly encapsulates the challenges of intersex people to Roman Catholic rules on the ordination of women. Male-identified at birth, Selwyn was raised as male, and became a Catholic priest. When medical tests revealed that internal biology was primarily female, Sally transitioned – and was forced out of the priesthood.
In the Anglican church, there is no problem with the ordination of intersex people, as there is no bar to women’s ordination in the first place, nor are there barriers to promotion – up to the rank of bishop. Then the stained – glass ceiling is struck, for intersex people and for women. We know from science that the intersex phenomenon is entirely natural and complex, including a small but significant proportion of the human population. The absolute division of us into a neat two-part binary, is simplistic and a dangerous ground on which to base rules for ordination (or for marriage, for that matter).
The theologian Dr Susannah Cornwall has specialised in the intersex challenge to theology, notably in her book “Sex and Uncertainty in the Body of Christ” . In a new paper, reported on in the Church Times, she applies these considerations to the debate raging in the English Church over women bishops.   The trigger for her intervention came in a paper by those opposed to women bishops,”The Church, Women Bishops and Provision”which argued “When we stop receiving Christ in his essential maleness, his humanity becomes obscured”.
Essentially male?




Continue reading Intersex, Women Bishops, and the Body of Christ

The Gay Closet as a Place of Sin

My colleague Advocatus Diaboli sent me a link some days ago to a post at Jesus in Love, about a new book (“Dark Knowledge“, by Kenneth Low) which argues that Jesus was homosexual and sexually active, but closeted – and that was the reason for his trial and execution. AD asked me for my opinion. Before getting to my response, I share some key extracts from Kittredge’s post:

Dark Knowledge” by Kenneth Low uses rational arguments to disprove much of the conventional wisdom about Christ. According to Low, Jesus was not heterosexual, not celibate, and not happy with his own identity.

Low presents evidence that Jesus must have been homosexual because he was an unmarried man who surrounded himself with men, including John, his beloved male disciple and sexual partner.

-Jesus in Love

Kittredge quotes from Low directly:

In His childhood, Jesus Christ came into His awareness of being the Son of God. His magical authority and other attributes were given to Him as His birthright. As He came into sexual awareness, He discovered Himself to be a homosexual. His awareness of being the Son of God precluded any possibility of denying His sexuality out of some external concern and He began to be sexually active. He was evidently discovered to be a homosexual by people in His hometown and He must have been sharply rebuked and ostracized. He left Galilee and wandered on an endless soulful sojourn seeking a reconciliation of His divinity with His homosexuality. (p. 276)

-Jesus in Love

Toby Johnson, the author of Gay Spirituality and Gay Perspective and a former editor of the “White Crane” journal of gay spirituality, has also written about Dark Knowledge. He summarizes the thesis proposed by Dark Knowledge:

When Low considers Jesus as homosexual, it is as secretive, shamed and closeted, what a homosexual would have thought of himself in an intensely and threateningly homophobic and misogynistic society. His townsfolk would have ignored his teachings because they knew too much about him. He’d have been an embarrassment to his family. The Apostles would have been reluctant to admit they knew him if this fact came out. In this reading of the story, Jesus’s homosexuality isn’t an item of pride, but rather the source of a spiritual crisis that forces him to develop an interpretation of virtue and goodness that isn’t just conformity with Jewish Law, since he himself can’t conform.

(In his review, Johnson praises the originality of the presentation and the  manner  in which Low re-imagines the life of Christ. He concludes by noting that he is sceptical of Low’s conclusion, but finds the book stimulating, and a good read nevertheless).

I stress that I have not read the book, and will not even attempt an assessment. However, I was interested in my own strong reaction to the book’s conclusion as presented in Kittredge’s review, and where that response led me. That reaction was  to the whole concept, that Jesus might have been actively “homosexual” – but closeted. We have virtually no real evidence on Christ’s orientation or sexual practice. There are reasonable arguments that he may have been (in modern terms) homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual or asexual in orientation, and it is possible to believe that he was sexually active, or celibate. We may speculate, but we just don’t know. I’m comfortable with any of the possibilities – homosexual and sexually active, heterosexual and sexually active – or entirely celibate. I don’t believe that it really matters. But the one possibility that I have not considered before, and immediately rejected out of hand in an instinctive, visceral reaction, is the one presented by Low: that Jesus was both homosexually active, closeted and ashamed. Why did I react so instinctively?

Somewhat surprised by the intensity of my response, I tried to dissect it. My conclusion came fairly rapidly: Low’s idea flatly contradicts a core belief of standard Christology, that although fully human, Jesus Christ was without sin. If he was without sin, what could he have to be ashamed of?

And that was where assessing my own response became really interesting to me. In going from a standard, conventional belief, that Jesus was without sin, to my conclusion, that this makes it impossible for him to have been a closeted, sexually active gay man, I had made an automatic assumption, that I was previously unaware of. That assumption, was that to be closeted and sexually active, is inherently sinful. But where is the sin? I have made it clear in numerous posts that I do not believe that homosexuality in itself is inherently sinful ( but some forms of inappropriate use of it may be). So if there is sin implied by the assumption, it must lie in the proposition that Jesus was closeted, and ashamed.

Is that a sound assumption? My short answer, which I present before the full reasoning, is yes – the closet is a place of sin (but with an important qualification, which I will get to later).

Before getting to a full consideration of just why I felt so strongly that the closet is a place of sin, I first reflected a little more on the nature of Christ. I have shared before, how my Religious Education classes at school included a lengthy period locating and memorizing Biblical texts on the theme of “God is….” (examples being “God is love”, “God is mercy”, “God is justice”, “God is light”, “God is life”, and more). A key one here, was “God is truth”.  If God is truth, and the closet is (by definition) a lie, then God/ Jesus in the closet is a logical impossibility. That doesn’t necessarily imply that there is sin in the closet, but the idea prepared the way for more, after some thought on the nature of sin.

My understanding of sin, is it is that which turns us away from God, keeps us from being the best that we can be. As John McNeill regularly reminds us in his books, St Ireneaus taught that “The glory of God is humans fully alive” – and by extension, I see sin as that which keeps us (or by our agency, others) from that glory, of being fully alive.  There is abundant evidence from academic literature, from anecdotal evidence, and from my own experience, that coming out is a process of growth, of becoming more fully alive . Remaining in the closet obstructs that growth, denying that process of growth. The closet keeps us from that – hiding us from that full glory of God.

If God / Jesus is truth, the closet is a lie. By hiding our own truth, we are denying the example of Christ.

God is love. Where is the love in the closet? “Love your neighbour as yourself” is the familiar text, but that implies that we must, indeed, love ourselves. Can we truly love ourselves, accept ourselves in all that we are, while denying an important part of who we are?

God is justice. Is there justice in the closet? Is there justice, in a situation where the 80 or 90% of adults are able to rejoice publicly in their loves, and invite friends, family and parishioners to celebrate an affirmation of those loves in church weddings – and some of us feel constrained to hide our loves, or even to avoid love altogether, out of fear?

I could go on, but you get the idea. As I explored my understanding of God, and of sin, it seemed to me clear that the closet restricts our approach to God, in these various aspects. Impeding our access to God, the closet is a place of sin.

But this was a troubling thought. I have often argued for the value of coming out, in church and in the world, but with an important qualification. This must always be only as far as we are able.  Sometimes, for personal reasons or by reason of external circumstances, we may not be able.  If the closet is a place of sin, as I concluded, what does this say of those who, for whatever reason, find that they are not able to come out?

That led me to some further thoughts on the nature of sin.

First, we must consider the particular circumstances and motivations of someone who is closeted. To take an extreme example, for most Catholic priests, coming out would be reckless, endangering their careers and ministry as priests. In such circumstances, staying within the closet in pursuit of a greater good is morally acceptable, and not sinful.

Next, we must consider that there exists both personal and social sin. If it is true that the closet is a place of sin, that does not necessarily imply that a closeted person is in a state of sin – the sin could lie in the social circumstances (of church doctrine and law, for instance, or the possibility of real and severe penalties). In that case, the sin could be social, not personal.

Now,  a little disclosure. The trigger that led to all of the above was in an email from AD, which by chance I read at 3 am one morning (no, that’s not my usual time for correspondence). The thoughts I have shared above, were buzzing around in my head for some hours later. They are based on perceptions, and half – remembered school lessons, not any deep knowledge or training in the relevant theology. The argument needs further testing and thought, but I have shared the ideas simply because they have substantially shaken me up. I am certain there will be flaws, in either the assumptions, or reasoning. I welcome responses from any one willing to pick holes in my thesis.

“Led by the child who simply knew”: (Boston Globe, on a Child’s Transition)

For trans children, at just how young an age is it appropriate to begin the transitioning process?

That’s just one of the questions raised by this thought-provoking story from the Boston Globe, on Nicole and her family. (The implied answer would seem to be, to prepare the way early, but delay anything permanent (and that includes delaying “natural” processes, like the onset of puberty) until the decision to transition is definite and irrevocable.

Jonas and Wyatt Maines were born identical twins, but from the start each had a distinct personality.

Jonas was all boy. He loved Spiderman, action figures, pirates, and swords.

Wyatt favored pink tutus and beads. At 4, he insisted on a Barbie birthday cake and had a thing for mermaids. On Halloween, Jonas was Buzz Lightyear. Wyatt wanted to be a princess; his mother compromised on a prince costume.

Once, when Wyatt appeared in a sequin shirt and his mother’s heels, his father said: “You don’t want to wear that.’’

“Yes, I do,’’ Wyatt replied.

“Dad, you might as well face it,’’ Wayne recalls Jonas saying. “You have a son and a daughter.’’

-Read the full article at The Boston Globe.

The article also highlights the importance of a supportive family and school community – and Nicole’s own mental strength. There came a point in her journey when the family became involved in political lobbying. She had encountered difficulties at school over usage of the girls’ bathroom, and filed court proceedings against the school district for discrimination. A Republican state legislator then introduced legislation that would have repealed Maine’s protection for transgender people in public restroom.

Last spring Wayne and Nicole roamed the halls of the State House, button-holing legislators and testifying against the bill. “I’d be in more danger if I went into the boys bathroom,’’ Nicole told the lawmakers, who ultimately rejected the bill.

“She knows how to work a room,’’ her father says proudly. “She even convinced a cosponsor to vote the other way.’’

Nicole freely acknowledges the difficulties ahead – but described the political engagement as a “perk”:

“Obviously my life is not going to be as easy as being gender-conforming, but there are perks like being able to get out there and do things that will benefit the [transgender] community,’’ she says. “I think everything’s going to turn out pretty well for me.’’

As an aside to gthe main themes, I was amused by the self-description of Nicole’s father (note the emphasis I added):

“As a conventional dad, hunter, and former Republican, it took me longer to understand that I never had two sons,’’ he told them. “My children taught me who Nicole is and who she needed to be.’’

English Bishop Backs Gay Marriage: Queer Ferment in the Anglican Church.

For years, the major focus of controversy in the Church of England has been over the appointment of women bishops. That debate has now been all but settled (even the opponents agree that change is inevitable). Issues around full LGBT inclusion in church will now move to centre stage.

One sign of this is a bishop who has spoken out publicly in favour of gay marriage:

 

The new Bishop of Salisbury, The Rt Revd Nick Holtam, has spoken out in support of gay marriage.

Bishop Holtam made the comments in an interview with the Times today ahead of the meeting of the General Synod next week, where civil partnerships in churches and equal marriage are to be discussed.

He said: “We are living in a different society. If there’s a gay couple in The Archers, if there’s that form of public recognition in popular soaps, we are dealing with something which has got common currency. All of us have friends, families, relatives, neighbours who are, or who know someone, in same-sex partnerships.”

He said he was “no longer convinced” marriage should be between a man and a woman.

He continued: “I think same-sex couples that I know who have formed a partnership have in many respects a relationship which is similar to a marriage and which I now think of as marriage.

Bishop of Salisbury Backs Gay Marriage – Pink News

He is not alone. The Times interview, in which he was speaking about full marriage, followed an earlier report that over 100 Anglican clergy from the diocese of London have signed a petition asking that the synod next week agree to allow local discretion on conducting civil partnership ceremonies on church. The background is that parliament last year changed the civil partnership legislation, which previously prohibited these from being conducted on religious premises, to permit such premises where church authorities give explicit approval. Up to now, the public stance of the Church of England has been that permission will not be granted. Next week’s synod will show that there is significant opposition to that stance.

A letter signed by 120 clergy is calling for the Church of England to reverse its ban on civil partnership ceremonies being held in churches.

The signatories, from the diocese of London, want discretion to uphold loving homosexual relationships.

It is the first sign of significant resistance within the Church to its refusal to permit civil partnership ceremonies in Anglican churches.

The law has allowed them in English and Welsh places of worship since December.

In their letter to the London diocese representatives on the General Synod, the signatories stopped short of calling for same-sex marriage.

However, they said they should be given the same discretion in deciding whether to hold civil partnerships in church as they currently have in deciding whether to remarry divorced people.

One of the signatories said they were dismayed at having to deny “the Church’s fullest ministry” to increasing numbers of gay couples with loving relationships, said BBC religious affairs correspondent Robert Pigott.

The public dissent over gay marriage / civil partnerships is part of a much wider ferment in the Church around matters of sexuality, including that of openly gay clergy, and the very fundamental matter of homoerotic relationships themselves.

Recent reports that Jeffrey Johns is considering legal action against the church over its twice passing him over for promotion to a bishopric, solely on grounds of his orientation, has highlighted glaring hypocrisy in the church. Technically, the regulations that the church may ordain priests who are openly gay or lesbian, provided that they are celibate. It is widely recognized that this is a mere fig – leaf: what goes one in one’s bedroom is private. What is really required is not that priests should be celibate, just that they should declare that they are. In other words, lie. (There is also a blatant double standard here.  Unmarried heterosexual candidates are not asked to declare that they are celibate, or facing the degree of intrusive question on past behaviour that lesbian and gay candidates are subjected to).

Once ordained, further gay priests have further barriers placed in the way of promotion, as the case of Dr Johns has shown. Although partnered, he has declared that the relationship is celibate, and so complies with the regulations for gay priests. Denying him further promotion puts him in exactly the same position that female priests have been in, up to now. Ordination to the priesthood and promotion  to the rank of dean is permitted, but no further. This is blatant discrimination, which diocesan votes on women bishops last year showed is no longer acceptable. The church also has to take account of secular legislation, and growing public pressure for honesty.

 Hardly anybody believes that the many unmarried Anglican priests,  or even the existing bishops, really are celibate. The Pink News report on Bishop Holtam’s support for gay marriage makes a further important point. Writing about John’s cancelled promotion to Bishop of Southwark, it notes

 

 The 58-year-old, was forced to give up his appointment as Bishop of Reading in 2003 due to his relationship with another priest and was blocked from the post Bishop of Southwark in 2010, a position Bishop Holtam was also considered for. It is now held by The Rt Revd Christopher Chessun.

A memo leaked by Colin Slee, the late Dean of Southwark Cathedral made the claim that there were already several gay bishops who had “been less than candid about their domestic arrangements and who, in a conspiracy of silence, have been appointed to senior positions”.

It added: “This situation cannot endure. Exposure of the reality would be nuclear.”

The extraordinary thing is that this memo was not an appeal for openness and honesty in the appointment of gay bishops, or an attempt to bar them completely, but an attempt to ensure that they simply remain more or less closeted, and removed from the public eye.   Pressures for greater honesty and consistency will grow. Already, there are ongoing discussions and investigations by church commissions, passing under the radar for now. Once the issue of women bishops has been resolved, public and synodal debates over LGBT clergy will begin in earnest.

In the background and informing these discussions, and those on marriage and civil partnerships, will be another set of formal investigations.     The church has recently appointed Two Groups to Advise on Sexuality .  Previously, a 1979 report  Homosexual Relationships: A con­tribu­tion to discussion, was published, but was considered by some to be too liberal. Subsequently, a working group set up in 1986 prepared a fresh report (the “Osborne Report“), which drew on the direct testimony of gay and lesbian Anglicans themselves.

The Osborne report was an advisory document for bishops, and it reminded them that they had an important part to play both in affirming “the catholicity and in­clusiveness of the Church”, and “in helping the Church live with un­resolved issues”.

 Crucially, and ironically — in the light of events that would unfold a decade-and-a-half later — the group reminded the Bishops that “The way to resolve the conflict and tensions between groups is not by the exclusion of one or more minority groups. We have been very conscious of the poor experience of the Church encountered by many homosexual people. . . The Bishops, as the chief pastors of the Church, have a particular responsibility to set a tone of welcome and acceptance in these matters.”

However, when the controversial report was leaked and met with fierce resistance in conservative quarters, the bishops responded with a much more cautious booklet, “Issues in Human Sexuality”, which was intended only as a discussion document, but came to be seen as the Church of England’s definitive statement on homosexuality. Its distinction between laity and clergy was considered of particular sig­nificance.

The new groups will update the Osborne report, and should lead to a fresh statement by the bishops. I would not presume to anticipate the commission’s findings, but its fair to expect that a quarter of a century after the Osborne commission, with the outpouring of queer affirmative biblical scholarship and theology that has followed it, and the increasing visibility and acceptance of openly queer clergy and bishop in many denominations and different geographic regions, the findings will be even substantially supportive than those of the Osborne Report.

The new commission will also have to consider one factor which simply did not exist in 1986.  The politicians have promised that by 2015 at the latest, and probably by 2013 in Scotland, full gender neutral equality will apply to civil marriage. Church commissioners will have to consider the implications for religious marriages, including the partnership positions of their own priests. (When equality came to New York last June, some Episcopal bishops wrote to their priests requiring that those in same-sex partnerships should marry).

We cannot be sure of timing, but of three things I am certain:

  • Continuing study and discussion of sexuality in the Church of England will lead to an acknowledgement, at the very least, that there is room for disagreement on the validity of homoerotic relationships.
  • The church will face up to the dishonesty of the current practice of DADT, and the discrimination faced by its LGBT clergy. The current barriers will go, just as they have done in several other denominations, and other provinces of the Anglican communion.
  • Civil partnerships in church, and later full weddings, will come (initially perhaps in selected dioceses only),  just as they already take place in some Episcopal dioceses.

 The ferment in the Anglican Church is part of a much broader process at work in all Christian denominations in all regions of the world, as well as non-Christian faiths (even touching Islam). In the middle of the twentieth century, we were totally invisible in church. The sixty years since have already seen extraordinary change, and much more is to come.  Thinking specifically of the Catholic Church, John McNeill has written repeatedly of the work of the Holy Spirit, creating a Kairos moment for LGBT Catholics (and other Christians).  There’s a verse for it, in Scripture:

Behold, says the Lord. I am doing a new thing. Can you not see it? (Is 4:19)

This transformation over sixty years of Christian responses to homoeroticism is a subject that I will be discussing in an address to the Quest annual conference in September this year, under the title “Blessed are the Queer in Faith, for they shall inherit the Church“.  I shall be returning to the theme here, repeatedly, over the next few months.

 

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“T and Conversation”: Beyond Binary Pronouns

One thing I have learned, beyond any room for doubt in my own mind, is that biological sex, gender identity and sexual orientation (in terms of attracted – to – male, or attracted  – to – female) do not co-incide. Nor is any of them a simple binary division. Most people are to some degree bisexual in orientation – although most suppress one or other side of their preference, choosing to date exclusively men or women. We all have both a masculine and a feminine side, but  encouraged by social pressures, many people choose not to express that part of themselves which is contrary to their biological sex. And contrary to popular belief, even biological sex is not a simple matter of either’/or male or female. A significant proportion of people are biologically one of a range of intersex variations, and may not even be aware of it, without specific medical testing.




Yet much of popular thinking, and particularly common speech, rests on binary assumptions. Public rest rooms and prisons, as well as all manner of application forms and documents depend on simple binary divisions. “Male” and “female” are provided for, “neither” and “both” just don’t cut it. This creates some tremendous paradoxes, which would be funny if they were not so tragic for the real people affected. I have written before of the case of Selwyn/ Sally Gross, who was raised as male and became a Catholic priest and theologian – but found after medical testing that in fact she was primarily female. After transitioning to conform with her dominant female sex, she was suddenly no longer acceptable for the priesthood. By the church’s own logic, someone who was incorrectly female assigned at birth, then later transitioned to live in conformity with a predominantly male biology, should be accepted as male, and so suitable for priesthood. Would church authorities agree? I suspect not. It is more likely that in practice, they want not just men, but “100%” males (if such a thing truly exists, which I am beginning to doubt).

At a practical level, some small progress in being made, in addressing some of these issues. A handful of countries are providing for male/female/other on official forms or passports, some (very slow) progress is being made in some areas with trans – friendly provision of services and facilities,  some brave souls are simply refusing to identify as either male or female.

Language is more intractable, less susceptible to change by simple political process. I want to share with you two pieces I have come across over the past two days, that have forced me to stop, and think more deeply.

The first, by Tricia Romano at The Daily Beast, was part of a broader reflection on the use of the T***** word, and its offensiveness – which I’m not going to get into here. The bit that is directly relevant to the dangerous binary divide, concerned the use of pronouns.

Discussions about pronoun usage and binary gender (simply: defining all gender as male or female) that used to take place only within the trans community are being launched into the mainstream. The terms “cisgendered” and “bio”—used to describe people who are biologically male or female and whose gender matches their biological sex organs—and the pronouns ze, zir,hir, used in place of “he” and “she” to address trans people who reject binary gender definitions, have been increasingly more present in mainstream debates.

Last year, when New York magazine profiled Justin Vivian Bond, who had just come out as a trans person, the magazine outraged Bond because it didn’t use Bond’s preferred pronoun, “v,” and referred to Bond repeatedly as “he.”

Bond—who gained fame as a formerly male-identified performer in the Broadway show Kiki and Herb—wrote at length in a blog post, excoriating the writer, who is gay, and the magazine, saying: “What I was offended by was the tone and what I consider to be extremely aggressive gender policing throughout the story. Within the first three sentences I was referred to as ‘he’ seven times.”

-extract from The Anger Over “Tranny”, at The Daily Beast

My initial response was one of confusion at Bond’s anger that the profile insisted on using the pronoun “he” and not hir preferred pronoun, “v”. Well, come on. I agree completely that the forced polarity into an absolute male / female split is artificial, but the first task of a writer is to be understood. The other gender neutral pronouns ze, zir and hir are confusing enough, but at least I’ve heard of them. How many regular readers of New York magazine would make any sense of their use, let alone “v”, which I’ve never come across before?  I can understand Bond’s desire to be referred to in gender neutral terms, but not the anger when the language as it stands doesn’t comply. The French language police have been trying for decades to exclude Anglicisms from colloquial French, with no success whatever. Adapting English to the complexities of gender and sexual diversity will take generations of careful use, not temper tantrums.

Then, this morning I came across the wonderfully named “T and Conversation” series by  at “In Our Words“. Professor Xx is a ftm medical doctor, who series takes the form of a standard medical question and answer advice column. The title is generic, referring to conversations about “T” issues, but is particularly appropriate for the opening post in the series, which discusses the importance of pronouns when talking about T people. The main thrust of the argument is that  we should ask people what pronouns they prefer (and not only those who we believe to be trans, but everybody, including colleagues in a very conventional work environment ). Here’s the bit about gender – neutral pronouns, which led me to think I need to reflect some more:

As to gender neutral pronouns: using them is simply about respecting another person’s identity, so you really need to do it if that’s what they request.  Language can never change if we are unwilling to adopt those changes because they “sound weird” or draw attention to themselves.  If someone doesn’t know what gender neutral pronouns are, tell them.  If they don’t understand, explain.  And if they’re a jerk about it, well, now you know a little bit more about that person’s value system.  As to using “they/their/them” as a singular pronoun – that’s actually proper English.  It was originally created to be used as a singular pronoun (more likely at the time for cases when a gender wasn’t indicated or important), so feel free to use it with impunity.

T and Conversation: Asking About Pronoun Preferences

and a neat little anecdote, illustrating the sheer value of displaying sensitivity:

I did have college professors who had all of the students identify their pronoun preference on the first day of class.  Students would often giggle about it, but it helped me to feel more welcome in the classroom, even if I wasn’t out as trans yet.  So by asking you may be making someone else feel more comfortable, even if you never know it, and even if they don’t tell you which pronouns they actually prefer.

T and Conversation: Asking About Pronoun Preferences

I’m still not sure if  “v” is a realistic pronoun for common usage, but I can now better understand Bond’s anger.

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