Weed – Not Necessarily for Smoking (Matthew 13: 24-30)

Jesus presented another parable to those gathered: “The kindom of heaven is like a farmer who sowed good seed in a field. While everyone was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and then made off. When the crop began to mature and yield grain, the weeds became evident as well.

“The farmer’s workers came and asked, ‘Did you not sow good seed in your field? Where are the weeds coming from?’

“The farmer replied, ‘I see an enemy’s hand in this.’

“They in turn asked, ‘Do you want us to go out and pull them up/”

“‘No,’ replied the farmer, ‘if you pull up the weeds, you might take the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until the harvest, then at harvest time I will order the harvesters first to collect the weeds and bundle them up to burn, then to gather the wheat into my barn.’”

-Mathew 13: 24-30

 

Seek Patience @ http://www.artabandoned.com/index.php/2012/01/patience

Growing up in and among Kentucky farmers – a long and glorious family lineage – I know how important a good harvest is to the stability of the family. What the enemy has done not only “bests” a rival, but demoralizes and subverts the family as well. Twice the “enemy” is mentioned and the parable develops around the action of this adversary. The concern is the outcome of the enemy’s action and how to neutralize the opponent’s influence.

This parable about the Empire of God appears in the midst of a section of Matthew’s gospel dealing with the nascent rejection of Jesus and his message. It is an early warning that not all will turn out satisfactory in the Jesus story.

I think there is a lesson here for the LGBTQIA community. We certainly know about enemies – those detractors who for one reason or another still point to us as “unnatural.” We are familiar with the weeds they seek to plant among us – hateful and hurtful attitudes which serve only to destabilize our innate orientation. We have set about pulling these weeds with great energy and hope. Yet the weeds spring back.

-continue reading at  The Bible In Drag – Queering Scripture.

Gender, Sex and Intersex: A Primer

In part two of his series on natural law yesterday (Sex and Catholics 2: Gender perspectives and Evolution) , Chris deliberately did not go too deeply into trans or intersex issues, because as he says, he does not know too much about them. Few of us who are not personally affected, do. However, this is a complex, real – world phenomenon that directly challenges the simplistic, binary assumptions about gender underpinning both traditional Christian theology and secular marriage law. It’s appropriate therefore, that we try to learn what we can, to better appreciate this complexity, and its implications for traditional thinking on gender and sexuality.Over the weekend, I came across this post,  “M, F, X, The South African Passport Gets Progressive“, at The ctr-ALT-sex magazine, which is helpful. The writer, Avri, is a South African who begins by sharing the good news that South Africa will amend its passport regulations (as Australia did last year), to provide for gender classification as M, F –  or “X”, permitting intersex and transgender to select a gender option that may be more in keeping with their biology and identity than a simple M or F. This would be a sensible move for South Africa, where intersex issues came into national prominence three years ago, with the controversy over Caster Semenye‘s gold medal at the 2009 Athletics World Championships. Strong protections for sexual and gender minority groups have also been deeply embedded in the South African constitution since the birth of the new democracy in 1994.

So Avri’s announcement was credible – but not true. Sadly, ze ends the post hir post with an April Fool’s disclaimer. There’s a much more serious point to the piece though, than just some April Fool’s fun. That’s just the launching pad, for a useful,  extended exposition of some of the  issues around intersex. I share some extracts here, but I strongly suggest that to beef up your understanding, you read the full post – and follow hir links, for more.

Sex is not a black & white binary

The South African public dominantly holds to a very stereotypical and binary definition of anatomical sex. If you’re a ‘typical’ girl you must have XX chromosomes, a vulva, uterus, ovaries, boobs, make up, dresses, oestrogen, emotions, a boyfriend, and sex (but only in the context of baby-bound marriage). If you’re a ‘typical’ boy, you must have XY chromosomes, a penis, scrotum, testosterone, an Adam’s Apple, hair in funny places, aggression, a fine tuned mind for numbers and logic, a wife, and lots, and lots of sex all the time with many lovers. Our society supports this model of biological determinism with exclusive M / F forms, M / F bathroom signs and with procedures to “fix” people who don’t fit the mould. You’re either typically female or male…or you’re a problem child.

In reality though, these seemingly ‘natural’ gender identities are just social stereotypes. – which conflate sex and gender. Even more confusing is that they are also an oversimplification of the ways in which (1) sex, (2) gender, (3) sexual orientation, and (4) sex play are related to each other. So how are they all are related to each other? And what does each one mean? Sex positive trainer and performer Delene Van Dyk’s inspired “binary and boxes” model defines each of these four distinct, but inter-related, aspects of human sexuality:

1. Sex: A biological concept

2. Gender: A social construct

3. Sexual Orientation: An expression 

4. Sex Practices/Play: A physical and/or mental sexual/erotic activity :

 The ctrl-ALT-sex magazine.

Avri supplies an explanation of each of these, but concentrates on the first, biological sex. Before getting to that here’s hir description of “gender”, including transgender:

Masculine : Feminine: Transgendered: :Androgynous : Gender Bender : Twinks :Bois Gender refers to a set of societal expectations regarding “appropriate” learned behaviours, emotions and thoughts for people of a particular sex. In many cases a person’s gender identity matches their biological sex. For some people this is not the case. Transsexuals are people whose gender doesn’t match their biological sex. Their gender, how they present themselves to the world, is at odds with their biological sex, as if they were born into the wrong body. This can be incredibly challenging, confusing and traumatising especially in a society so preoccupied with traditional gender roles.

We need to understand that trans and intersex issues are not the same. “Transgender” and associated ideas refer to a mismatch between gender identity and biological sex (which may well be any of male, female or intersex), while intersex is a biological condition, where the simple “male” or “female” binary division simply does not apply.

This is because even the concept of biological sex is not as simple as we commonly assume. In the popular imagination, identifying someone as male or female is easily solved, by the crude but simple device of getting them to just drop their pants – but that can be misleading.

(Physiological) Sex 

The word “sex” refers to your physiological and genetic sex. Biological sex can be broken down further into four different but related processes:

  1. Chromosomal sex (XX, XY, and ‘non-typical’ chromosomal make ups like XO)
  2. Gonadal/hormonal sex (androgens, testosterone, oestrogen, progesterone)
  3. Genital sex: Internal & external genitalia (ovaries, uterus, penis, testicles, vulva)
  4. Sex differentiation of the brain (which happens in utero and at puberty in response to the sex hormones in your system)
For most people, chromosomes are either XX (female) or XY (male), and the other identifiers co-incide. For others, not so simple. Classifications based on any two of these criteria may not match, there are a number of chromosomal patterns which are not either male or female, and even external genitalia are not a definitive guide.

And what’s intersexed?

“Intersex involves human differences that challenge conventional notions of male and female and gender role paradigms” (Gender Centre, Australia).

The third sex: X

The more familiar word is “hermaphrodite”, based on the Ancient Greek word“hermaphrodites,” the half male, half female child of Hermes and Aphrodite. Over the last decade or so the word has been replaced with “intersexed” (between sexes) which more accurately describes the reality – and doesn’t make intersexed people sound like mystical ancient creatures hailing from the kinkier parts of Olympus. Intersexed has become an umbrella term for a wide variety of non-typical and ambiguous sexes. This can be evidenced as non-typical sex organs (1 in 50 babies) or non-typical chromosomal sex, hormonal sex, or sex differentiation of the brain (1 in 500 babies). There are some medical conditions that are related to intersexuality (eg. Klinefelters Syndrome). Although some intersexed people and critics argue that intersexuality is a Sexual Development Disorder (SDD) and not a third sex, more often than not there is no easy explanation.

To most new parents’ first question, “Is it a boy or a girl?”, the honest answer may occasionally be “we don’t know”. That’s because in some new babies, the external genitalia may be ambiguous, not easily identified as either an unusually large clitoris, or as a small penis. In these cases, our obsession with identifying everyone as either “a boy” or “a girl” can have tragic results.

Unnecessary and non-consensual medical treatment

One of the major problems with society’s black and white thinking is that intersexed babies are treated like medical emergencies. Ambiguous sex is operated on at birth to “fix” what is seen as a birth defect. A best guess about the baby’s gender identity is made and gender assignment surgery is used to typify the genital appearance of an “ordinary” baby female or male. Hormone treatment may be used later on. Growing up these children are socialised into their given gender role by parents and other care givers.

But surgically altered babies may not turn out later on to be the gender identity they were assigned at birth. This ‘best guess surgical strategy’ basically means intersexed children have little freedom to explore their actual selves, particularly if their identity conflicts with what’s in their pants. It can cause major confusion and distress for intersexed kids and teens who struggle to resolve what they look like on the outside (which may include physical scarring) with how they feel on the inside. Surgery at birth is simply premature and reinforces the myth that there are only two normal sexes.

Here are Avri’s recommended links (one of which, “Intersex, Women Bishops, and the Body of Christ” is my own, at Queering the Church, which is how I came across hir post in the first place):

Related articles/links

Other related posts:

Natural Law Part 2: Gender perspectives and evolution

We left two issues on one side for reconsideration later, near the beginning of Part One, evolution and the female perspective. In this part we’ll critically reassess the male perspective, before considering the seriously missing female views, and then move on to examine what needs to be incorporated from our understanding of evolution.

Patriarchy - a penis puts you in charge of the womenfolk - how convenient
The male perspective and the Church’s sexual morality teaching

The Church and Aquinas’s sexual morality teaching comes from a male, patriarchal perspective. It is explicitly so and starts from the use by men of the penis and its supposed proper, natural and moral purpose. We are told nature allows us to deduce the sexual purpose of the penis is for inserting into the vagina for depositing semen for the purpose of procreation. This is backed up by another natural purpose idea, that the male and female sexual bodies are designed to be ‘complementary’ and only with the vaginal use by the penis do human bodies fit ‘naturally’.

Added to this is a significant element of Bible and Christian tradition used to justify and reinforce the very restricted view of acceptable human sexual behaviour. There’s only one plain dish available in the Catholic sexual cafe, even for married couples.

Why does the Prostate Gland have feelings?

Before we consider female perspectives on the Church’s and Aquinas’s teachings on sexual morality, we should briefly pause to deal with another male sexual organ, one which is internal, the prostate gland; this produces some of the fluid within semen¹.

Neither the Church nor Aquinas have ever considered this male sexual organ. It plays an integral part of the male reproductive role, and although it is hidden, it has one highly significant characteristic.

The prostate surface, although internal, is rich in nerve endings and when stimulated this is highly pleasurable. Some people call it the male g-spot. Its surface is not stimulated during Aquinas-approved vaginal penetration. Neither Church nor Aquinas considers its surface sensitivity.
male internal prostate gland
Most gay men know about the prostate’s surface sensitivity from experiences of anal sex: the prostate surface is stimulated by contact with a penis in the anus. There is no biological reason in procreation to justify the design of the prostate gland to incorporate sensitive surface nerve endings.

It appears deliberately designed by God, evolution and nature, to make anal sex pleasurable for homosexual men.

Female perspectives on the Catholic Natural Law of sex

– the Clitoris

Let’s turn to the Aquinas’s and the Church’s teachings and consider these from a female perspective.

Females are distinguished with their own sexual characteristics and possess a clitoris and this is visible. But, despite being visible, it is completely ignored by Aquinas and the Church. It is as if the clitoris doesn’t exist. (Adjacent to the clitoris in most, but not all, women are the female-only Skene’s glands² the equivalent of the male’s prostate; these contribute to vaginal lubrication.)

The significance of the clitoris in natural law terms is that it has no necessary purpose in procreation. It is not required to achieve the fertilisation of the egg, nor to accommodate penetration.

However friction on the clitoris produces pleasure, and pleasure is its biological purpose.
Clitoris anatomy
The Christian theologian Professor Christine Gudorf concludes that the existence of the clitoris in the female body suggests that God intended that the purpose of sexual activity was as much for sexual pleasure for its own sake, as it was for procreation. Therefore, according to Gudorf, pleasurable sexual activity, apart from procreation, does not violate God’s design, is not unnatural, and hence is not necessarily morally wrong, as long as it occurs in the context of a monogamous marriage (Gudorf, Christine. Sex, Body, and Pleasure, Reconstructing Christian Sexual Ethics, 1995 p. 65)³.

Aquinas: females are ‘defective’ males
Aquinas teaches that women are defective males
It is profoundly shocking to modern sensibilities and our sense of gender equality to read Thomas Aquinas’s description of women as the product of a ‘defective’ male seed– he has a male-centred view of creation and life, one where women are naturally subordinate and secondary to men.

We now know a rather contrary account, from scientific human biology, that the true nature of humans is that the female is the standard human prototype, and boys are a natural variant which develops male characteristics from female foundations in the womb.

Adam comes from Eve, is biology’s complete rewriting of the Genesis human creation myth.

Such a fundamental misconception by Aquinas of the nature of female and male, and one that excludes any female perspective, underlies Aquinas’s thinking, reasoning and conclusions.

This raises further doubts about the appropriateness of relying on Aquinas’s ideas and conclusions for the Church’s teaching on sexual morality.

Other female perspectives on Aquinas and the Church’s teachings [4]

– dependence

Women with or without children, who are economically dependent on their husbands, may find themselves in the position of having to engage in sexual activity whether they want to or not, for fear of being abandoned, or physically, or psychologically abused; these women may not be engaging in sexual activity fully voluntarily. The woman who allows herself to be bullied into sex by her husband worries that if she says “no” too often, she will suffer economically, if not also physically and psychologically.

– ‘giving yourself’ in marriage: is this perpetual consent? What about rape?

Does ‘giving yourself’ in marriage mean that wives [or husbands] always and every time have to have sex if their partner wants this? Can there be no rape in a Catholic marriage?

Aquinas and Christians traditionally saw a married woman as her husband’s property, for sexual use as and when he wanted. This view swung towards female autonomy only in the 19th and 20th centuries, but very slowly. It was as late as 1991 that marital rape was made a crime in England and Wales.

Many women complain they still lack real sexual autonomy equivalent to men in marriage.

– coercive pressure is morally wrong

The presence of any kind of pressure at all is seen by some women experts as coercive and means there is no voluntary participation in sex, making that sex activity morally objectionable. Charlene Muehlenhard and Jennifer Schrag discuss this in “Nonviolent Sexual Coercion”.

They list, among other things, “status coercion” (when women are coerced into sexual activity or marriage, by a man’s wealth or occupation) and “discrimination against lesbians” (which discrimination compels women into marriage or into having sexual relationships only with men) as forms of coercion that undermine the voluntary participation by women in sexual activity with men.
women under sexual pressure
– are some pressures uncoercive, or morally acceptable?

Some people counter this by saying either that some forms of sexual pressure are not coercive and do not appreciably undermine voluntariness, or that some pressures are coercive but nevertheless are not morally objectionable.

Both these views seem indistinguishable from a male heterosexual apologia for using sexual pressure for the purposes of coercion, and as an excuse or justification for maintaining the present male power advantage to secure sex when a male wants this.

These can only be assessed fairly with the benefit of the views of the more vulnerable person in that situation. Personally, I’d prefer to trust the judgement of relatively vulnerable women facing this situation and say such coercive pressure is morally wrong.


– women’s health and well-being

Consider the situation of women concerned for their future health and well-being (her body’s capacity to gestate, give birth to and nurse a child), her age and the mental and physical resources available to nurture a child / another child through to adulthood. Aquinas and Catholic teaching ban all use of artificial contraception and abortion. Repeated childbearing is physically demanding on the woman’s body, and childbirth is often hazardous without significant affordable medical, obstetric, or midwifery care being available. Maternal death was common among women until the early decades of last century (affecting at least 1 in 10 women) and it is still common in much of the developing world.
98% of Catholics have used birth control
Aquinas’s and the Church view ignores this female health and well-being perspective: when you married you ‘gave yourself’ to your husband. If you die in pregnancy, from childbirth, or postpartum, or of exhaustion, or cannot cope with a disabled child, that’s just the life of a Catholic wife.

It is hard to conclude that women would arrive at the same conclusion as Aquinas and the Church on the consequences of always procreative sexual activity, when it is their lives and health that are at risk. The reality that most Catholic women (over 90%) use ‘artificial’ contraception when this is freely available and that some have abortions, despite the Catholic bans, demonstrates that sex that is always open to conception is not most women’s normal, natural choice.

Women’s sexual activity preferences

The sexual activity allowed to married women and men by Thomas, vaginal penetration open to procreation, is limited. The different attitudes to sexual activity stereotypically found in men and women go unrecognised. A husband of the ‘wam bam thank-you mam’ type, single-mindedly focused on his penetration and his orgasm, would be perfectly acceptable in Thomas’s prescription. That’s not likely to be welcomed by many wives as serving their sexual needs and wishes well.

The needs of women, who typically prefer loving attention to become receptive, are not considered or recognised.   Kissing and cuddling are OK, but fingering or tonguing arguably amount to ‘unnatural’ sex because these are not necessarily making “use of certain things in a fitting manner and order for the end to which they are adapted”  but“by not observing the natural manner of copulation, either as to undue means, or as to other monstrous and bestial manners of copulation” are rendered “unnatural vice”.

Certainly a husband fingering or tonguing his wife to orgasm, masturbation, is “unnatural vice”, even as a warm-up to penetration. And getting much more adventurous than the “missionary position” risks going off-piste for “not observing the natural manner of copulation”, making it “unnatural vice”.

Scepticism: the prostate, clitoris, and transgender people

Today we cannot be at all confident, as Aquinas and the Church were, that God’s plan can be discovered by a straightforward examination of the obvious male and female sexual body parts. The natural law examination and consideration of natural purpose completely missed the clitoris and the surface-sensitive internal male prostate, both of which demand proper respectful consideration from the Church.

Then there is the rich diversity in the bodily and hormonal expressions of gender differences seen in the variety of transgender people [5] [6]. The Church’s current view of transgender differences is ignorant, unscientific, disordered and un-Christian. I will leave transgender issues aside because of their complexity, my lack of expertise and because it is not central to the argument about mainstream male and female sexual expression. It is a vital issue to the people affected, and because the Church’s understanding and teaching in this area is also defective, transgender expressions of sexuality deserve respectful, considered, and separate assessment. I hope to return to this at a later date when I have become better informed.
transgender news
Evolution and natural sexual expression

At the beginning of Part One in this series, we also mentioned and put to one side (along with a female perspective and the ignored male and female sexual organs), the issue of evolution. Evolution was not considered by either Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas in their development of Natural Law in relation to sexual morality, simply because neither was aware of it.

Aristotle, as mentioned earlier, believed the world had always existed as it was, while Aquinas inherited the Biblical creation account of life’s origins. What do we now know from evolution about the development of gender diamorphism, sexual differences and behaviours? How might this modern understanding influence our response to Aquinas and the Church’s teachings about sexual morality?

Life evolved from primordial slime and found evolutionary advantage in two genders because this is highly effective at mixing genes and especially in producing advantageous adaptations. Evolution has the additional advantages of recombinational DNA repair and through processing a very large brain. There are two significant issues with large brains, the first that our babies are born very immature (to be able to pass through the pelvis) and need a very long period of nurturing by adults, not necessarily the parents, to gain size and reach sexual maturity, and secondly humans, with the high intelligence that comes from having a big brain, have more complex forms of social organisation and interaction than any other creature.

From observing animal species, evolution has taught us that species providing extended parental care after the birth of their offspring have the potential to overcome the sex differences in parental investment (the amount of energy that each parent contributes to each offspring), and this can lead to flexibility in, and even the reversal of, gender roles.

-promoting hybrid vigor.

Advanced complexity results in gender role flexibility

Humans evolved as the most advanced placental mammal, posse

Gender stereotypes and ignoring sexual behaviour diversity

A great deal is still not fully unexplained about the diversity of human behaviour and we must be wary, firstly, of explanations that invoke stereotypical gender roles and secondly, realise how individuals who do not fit the norm and popular narratives are routinely ignored.

Aristotle and Aquinas are a warning to us of this because both expressed a patriarchal view of human society and gender interactions.
sexuality and gender role distinctions in the bible
Homosexuals and transexuals are good examples of being omitted from the mainstream story society tells itself about male and female human nature, and have been persistently denigrated in the Christian and Abrahamic traditions. Yet there are other human societies where homosexual and gender-role-defying people are prized, as shamans, healers and notably as religious exemplars.

Contemporary evolutionary biologists see diversity as ‘natural’

The work of contemporary evolutionary biologists, like Joan Roughgarden, is illuminating. She sees the tremendous diversity in human and animal genders and sexualities, not as something that has to be explained away to fit the dogma of binary gender and sexual selection, but as the “natural” order of things, and this perspective is gaining wide acceptance. Her book, The Genial Gene is a fascinating alternate vision of the evolution of sex.
Sexual Diversity Guide book
Competition between the sexes is no longer at the centre of natural selection, but is replaced by social forces in families and communities of animals.

Her theory of social selection fills many of the gaps in theories of sexual selection, from explaining the existence of homosexuality, transexuality and other intermediate genders and sexualities, to the mathematical impossibility of females being able to calculate genetic superiority in nearly identical males, and the lack of a correlation between secondary sex characteristics and fitness.

Evolutionary biology’s lessons for society and the Church

The Church needs to reflect on the emerging understanding that evolution has handed humans a unique and diverse set of cards, and with our huge intelligence, we should be very wary of the simplistic ‘natural’ behaviour analysis and strictly limited gender roles and acceptable sexual morality, as found in Aquinas and the Church’s teaching of Natural Law for sexual behaviour.

Instead the available evidence and current evolutionary biology understanding tells us the Church is surely in error about the beauty seen in the diversity of God’s human creation, as expressed through human evolution and development.

 

Church and external expertise

What does all this signify and how do we incorporate this wealth of knowledge into an appropriate view of the diversity of expression and ‘proper’ use for the human sexual faculties in the 21st century?

There is a vast wealth of external expertise in many fields, that the Church has not fully opened its eyes and mind to in the fields of gender and sexual expression. The Church cannot discern the Truth it should transmit properly and broadcast this to the world, if it continues to ignore large parts of modern understanding and insights about sex and relationships. It undermines people’s faith in the Truth the Church teaches, to ignore and not publicly address such contemporary human knowledge and insights.

Involve, Consult, Reason, Explain, Persuade lay people

The Church needs to persuade, reason and explain its sexual morality teachings for these to be publicly credible, especially because this is in an area of life where the Church has lost, through the clerical sexual abuse scandal, much of its moral authority in sexual matters.

When it does not do so, as it did not for contraception in Humanae Vitae, the bulk of the faithful simply decides to reasons things out for itself and decides in the light of its own informed conscience. More than 90% of Catholics use contraception that the Church teaches is forbidden.

Sexual morality is an area where the lay faithful have experience and some expertise, unlike celibate clergy bound by promises of chastity. The disconnect between Church and laity in sexual morality accounts for much of the moral relativism about which the Church complains so bitterly. It has the potential remedy in its own hands.

Scepticism about Aquinas’s competence to discern Truth from the natural world

It is time for the Church to embrace a healthy scepticism about the Truth of Aquinas’s prescriptions for human sexual behaviour based on his attempt to discern the intentions of God from his simplistic understanding of biological evidence in the natural world. Natural Law, with the addition of misapplied historical tradition and scriptural interpretations, appears unfit for transmitting God’s Truth for proper human sexual expression in committed relationships.

Next Post: 3: modern specialists

The next post, third in this series of four, will consider some of the modern specialist knowledge and insights into sexual behaviour and morals that are now available. For example people are endowed with large brains and great intelligence, and are capable of a complex range of subtle behaviours, but the Church appears to disregard significant insights of psychology in human sexual expression.

Both Catholic and secular modern moral theologians are often highly critical of the Church’s teachings on sex and relationships because the understanding of natural law and scriptural interpretations are flawed and inadequate.

Does the Natural Law teaching of the Church on sexual morality stand up to the modern insights of psychology and the criticisms of moral theologians and ethicists?

footnotes and sources

¹ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prostate

² http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skene%27s_gland

³ http://www.iep.utm.edu/sexualit/#H12

[4] http://www.iep.utm.edu/sexualit/ Philosophy of Sexuality

http://www.iep.utm.edu/natlaw/ Natural Law

http://www.iep.utm.edu/sexualit/#H16 Consent is Sufficient – specific

http://www.iep.utm.edu/sexualit/#H17 What is voluntary? – coercion

[5] Sexual Diversity and Catholicism : toward the development of moral theology; Professor Patricia Beattie Young with Joseph A Coray, editor(s), 2001, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, USA

[6] More Than a Monologue: Sexual Diversity and the Catholic Church, 2011

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Sex and Catholics: the Problems in Natural Law

Something called ‘Natural Law’ sets the ground rules for all Catholic teachings about sex. Natural Law means the only Catholic approved sex is vaginal intercourse that can lead to procreation, and only when it is between a married woman and man couple. Any other sex at all is prohibited as ‘unnatural’ and the Church usually says it is a mortal sin. Many people search their informed conscience and disagree with both teachings and sinfulness. The common use of ‘artificial’ contraception within most Catholic marriages in the developed world is just one example of this.
Ancient origins of Natural Law

The Natural Law rules about sex for Catholics are truly ancient: mostly they come from St Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), and he got a lot of his ideas from ancient Greeks like Plato and Aristotle, around 1,500 years earlier, a few hundred years BC. Interesting fact: ancient Greek texts had just come to Christian Europe’s attention because they were rescued from oblivion by Islamic scholars.

Aquinas and his homosexual deception

Another little known fact – Aquinas cheated and bent what Aristotle said about innate, natural homosexual behaviour, to help justify his and the Church’s condemnation of all homosexual behaviour. Aquinas, instead of talking of innate behaviour, said homosexual behaviour was something people acquired which then becomes ‘second nature’ to them – in other words Aquinas made it something people choose, instead of being born with. A choice is deliberate, so his twisting of Aristotle’s facts and reasoning helped the Church to call homosexual behaviour a deliberate sin, and Aquinas made it the particularly grave sin of ‘unnatural vice’. We’ll examine exactly how Aquinas performed this deception trick in Part Four of this series of posts on Natural Law.

St. Thomas Aquinas thinking as he writes in a book

Challenges to Natural Law: cracks in the dam

It is no surprise that something so ancient and so strict about how humans may sexually express our love is being seriously challenged in the 21st century. The Natural Law dam that is Catholic sex teaching is showing some serious cracks. Because Catholic Natural Law bans any lesbian and gay sexual expression, lesbians and gay men in particular have been asking tough questions about how sound the Church’s teaching really is. Many of us are not convinced at all by the Church’s wobbly defence of its Natural Law basis. Heterosexual women and men too have disputed the contraception ban especially, since the 1960s. Altogether there’s very many frustrated and unhappy Catholics who are urging a major sexual morality rethink, including expert Catholic moral theologians and ethicists. Outside the Church, even secular natural law theorists are struggling to hold the creaking Natural Law sexual morality edifice in one piece. It’s past its sell-by date.

Natural Law explored and tested : Part One of Four

This is the first of four posts, and the series will investigate the strange and unfamiliar world of Catholic Natural Law. We’ll find out why its rules about sex are so strict. We’ll reveal its male viewpoint and discover that significant things about women’s bodies, needs and ideas are simply ignored by the Church. All kinds of experts and thinkers have been turning inside out the Catholic teachings on sex and Natural Law, and very few are convinced by what they find. Catholic teaching on sex and relationships is a mess and a lot of senior people now realise this. Changing the Church’s sexual teaching is inevitable, but won’t come easily or quickly. But there are signs that change is on its way.

Catholic moral theologians’ ideas explored

This ‘Natural law’ and sex series ties in with posts from Terence about Catholic moral theologians discussing lesbian and gay sexuality. We’ve heard about the ideas of:

Dr James B Nickoloff, is an openly gay Catholic theologian who tells it straight. It’s not lesbians and gay men who are ‘intrinsically disordered’ but Catholic sexual teaching on lesbian and gay relationships. He tells us his idea of what the path ahead looks like for lesbians and gay men in the Church.

Bishop Geoffrey Robinson tells us the teaching for heterosexuals must change before it can change for lesbian and gay people. He wants the Church to shift the sexual rules from an obsession with sex acts, to focusing on the people, relationships and doing no harm.

James Alison is a priest and theologian who is openly gay and keen to help the Church get out of its rut of inexcusably blaming lesbians and gay men.

There are also heterosexual Catholic ethicists writing on similar themes: Todd Salzmann and Michael Lawler, who wrote ‘The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology’, and
Sister Margaret Farley, author of ‘Just Love: a Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics’, among other moral ethicists.

This homophobic tweet about Natural Law got a San Antonio coffee shop into trouble

‘Disordered’, wrong teachings, in need of significant review

Each of these experts in their own way have criticised the Church’s teaching on sexual morality as ‘disordered’, wrong, and badly in need of thorough updating and review, for everyone, heterosexuals and lesbians and gay men.

Aquinas: ‘Doctor of the Church’

The Natural Law and theological influence of St Thomas Aquinas, who is a ‘Doctor of the Church’, gives his ancient work particular authority in the Church canon and tradition. His contribution and the high esteem in which he is held by the Church is a major reason why it is especially slow and reluctant to review and change traditional teaching and interpretations of scripture on sexual morals. You have to be pretty brave to say St Thomas got things wrong, when he has a title of distinction for getting theology right. But that’s what more and more experts, and lay people, are doing.

Every time the Pope or Bishops talk about lesbian and gay sexuality and gay marriage as ‘unnatural’ or ‘intrinsically disordered’ in Pastoral letters, Vatican documents and the Catechism, that’s a reference to Natural Law. Why is most contraception called ‘artificial’ contraception by the Church (no doctors use that phrase)? That’s because using contraception is ‘unnatural’ according to the Church, it’s against Natural Law, because it blocks natural procreation.

Natural Law

St Thomas Aquinas on Law

Natural law is deductive, based on the idea that everything in the world has its own natural purpose, and that we can work out the purpose of things through observing, reasoning and deducing things, like a detective. Thomas for example says, about the sex that is permissible:

Wherefore it is no sin if one, by the dictate of reason, makes use of certain things in a fitting manner and order for the end to which they are adapted, provided this end be something truly good.

Natural law deduces that fulfilling the proper natural purpose of our human design is the only ‘good’ use of our human faculties, and any misuse, contrary to their natural purpose, will be against natural law. Noses are for breathing and smelling things like roses, not for snorting cocaine.

So our moral rules are derived from the nature of the world and the nature of human beings. Since humans are by nature rational beings, we should behave in ways that conform to our sensible, rational nature. Thus, Aquinas and the Church derive natural law and moral rules from the inherent nature of human beings.

Homosexuality in nature

However defenders of orthodox interpretations of Natural Law insist that it does not mean everything “as found in nature”. So the same sex behaviour that is widely seen in all kinds of creatures in the natural world is not proof that this is natural for some humans too. Some even contend that ‘homosexuality in animals is a myth’, such as the conservative Dr Antonio Pardo, a Spanish professor of Bioethics. He argues that there is no such thing as homosexual behaviour in nature, and while some animal behaviours just look homosexual, these can all be explained by dominance and the strong sexual urge. Few bioethicists who’ve studied the phenomenon share his opinion.

biological exuberance book cover

His contention that all animal same sex behaviour is explained by dominance and the sex urge, simply disregards the breadth and depth of the available zoological evidence and the diversity of reasons why different creatures engage in a huge variety of non-procreative sexual behaviours, and why same sex animal couples raise young. Only some of the animal diversity of sexual exuberance can be characterised as homosexual, and ‘dominance’ is clearly not the real explanation. See this detailed, illustrated discussion, by Terence last week.

Another favourite dismissive argument is that (to use human behaviour labels) incest, cannibalism and rape are also found among animals, and those are immoral for humans and so too must be all homosexual behaviour. That’s a weak argument because it ignores the reality of the very specific all-encompassing Catholic prohibition on all sex, including among heterosexuals, which is not strictly marital vaginal penetration open to procreation. However we know very many human societies, including historial and current Christian societies, have or had no such taboos on other heterosexual behaviours, and some human societies find no problem in homosexual expression. Most people can see a clear category difference between causing harm to others (rape, cannibalism), and taking irrational risks of genetic abnormalities appearing in the longer term (incest), and the mutual loving of chosen life partners (homosexuality).

Arguing humans can only enjoy a one dish sexual menu (marital vaginal penetration for procreation only) because that is all that can be justified from the evidence of nature and ‘right reason’ is just bizarre. Different human societies in different places and times have their individual sexual moral codes of behaviour, all much more varied. These are all part of natural human social diversity. Attempting to exclude homosexual expression as uniquely transgressive for all humans makes no logical sense. Even Aristotle did not exclude homosexual expression as unnatural in law.

Khnumhotep and his male partner Niankhknum approx 2500BC

This bar on homosexual expression and all heterosexual sexual activity that is not marital vaginal penetration for procreation, is all the creation of Aquinas and his successors, using reasoning that is directed to a series of ends found by reference to pre-existing misinterpretations of Old and New Testament scripture and of Church tradition.

The evidence was selected, sometimes twisted from Aristotle’s original, and Thomas’s reasoning happened to suit particular and preferred Catholic conclusions.

English translations of Thomas’s writings on sex

First in these translations of Aquinas is what he has to say on ‘unnatural vice‘; this is much broader than simply lesbian and gay sexual expression, and includes heterosexual sex that is “not observing the natural manner of copulation, either as to undue means, or as to other monstrous and bestial manners of copulation,” and masturbation and bestiality. These are all grave sins in Aquinas’s mind. Few people these days can accept that masturbation is in the gravest category of sins. If that’s OK, what does that mean for the rest on Aquinas’s grave list?

The key passage dealing with lesbian and gay sex, masturbation, bestiality and unnatural heterosexual sex is this:

As stated above (A6,9) wherever there occurs a special kind of deformity whereby the venereal act is rendered unbecoming, there is a determinate species of lust. This may occur in two ways: First, through being contrary to right reason, and this is common to all lustful vices; secondly, because, in addition, it is contrary to the natural order of the venereal act as becoming to the human race: and this is called “the unnatural vice.” This may happen in several ways. First, by procuring pollution, without any copulation, for the sake of venereal pleasure: this pertains to the sin of “uncleanness” which some call “effeminacy.”[=masturbation] Secondly, by copulation with a thing of undue species, and this is called “bestiality.” Thirdly, by copulation with an undue sex, male with male, or female with female, as the Apostle states (Rm. 1:27): and this is called the “vice of sodomy.” Fourthly, by not observing the natural manner of copulation, either as to undue means, or as to other monstrous and bestial manners of copulation. [=non-procreative heterosexual sex acts]

The second is about sex in general, including fornication, incest, adultery, rape etc.

The key passage about permissible heterosexual sex is here:

I answer that: A sin, in human acts, is that which is against the order of reason. Now the order of reason consists in its ordering everything to its end in a fitting manner. Wherefore it is no sin if one, by the dictate of reason, makes use of certain things in a fitting manner and order for the end to which they are adapted, provided this end be something truly good. Now just as the preservation of the bodily nature of one individual is a true good, so, too, is the preservation of the nature of the human species a very great good. And just as the use of food is directed to the preservation of life in the individual, so is the use of venereal acts directed to the preservation of the whole human race. Hence Augustine says (De Bono Conjug. xvi): “What food is to a man’s well being, such is sexual intercourse to the welfare of the whole human race.” Wherefore just as the use of food can be without sin, if it be taken in due manner and order, as required for the welfare of the body, so also the use of venereal acts can be without sin, provided they be performed in due manner and order, in keeping with the end of human procreation. [= vaginal penetration open to fertilisation]

Aquinas's cure for sorrows

Ancient Greek misreadings of nature

Scholars like James Boswell and other academics clearly trace Aquinas’s ideas back to Aristotle’s own misreadings of the sexual behaviour of animals. Other scholars point to Aquinas’s misrepresentation of Aristotle’s findings on human homosexual expression.

Ignorance of evolution and the female perspective

The ancient Greek roots of Natural Law and Aquinas’s contributions in the 13th century mean none of them knew anything about the processes of evolution which influence sexual behaviour throughout nature, and they also all saw things solely from a male perspective. We’ll come back to their ignorance of evolution and the male-only perspective later, because these are the origin of some big cracks in the natural law moral dam.

Aquinas, Creation and God

While Aristotle didn’t believe in any creation by a god (he believed the world had always existed) and simply used reasoning from observation of nature and form to deduce everything’s purpose, Aquinas believed in God’s creation. For Thomas the creator God was involved in designing the natural purpose of all things and the Bible helped him decide that natural purpose. So Catholic Natural Law is an odd mixture of nature’s supposed purposes, with the addition of Bible and God, whenever Aquinas needed to import these to buttress a version of Natural Law to suit him and the Church.

Body Parts decide the natural law of human sexuality

In considering human sexuality, the starting point is the purpose of various body parts. The purpose of eyes is to see, and you can deduce this from close examination of their parts and connections to the brain. The purpose of lungs is to breathe air and so oxygenate the blood and then expel waste carbon dioxide.

In this natural purpose design view, the penis has a dual purpose, excretion and procreation. In procreation it is designed to penetrate the vagina and deposit semen, in order to fertilise a woman’s egg.

medieval manuscript sex illustration

Any other usage of the lungs than to breathe would be unnatural and irrational, and therefore morally wrong, as this is not part of God’s creation design for the lungs. Using the lungs to sniff glue to get high, or to smoke, or depriving the lungs of fresh air for the risky thrill of asphixiation, are neither natural nor rational, not part of their design purpose.

By the same token, using the penis purely for pleasure as in masturbation, or for penetration of other orifices, as in oral or anal sex is, in the Church’s strict conception of the natural purpose of things, neither natural nor rational. The Church teaches that natural and rational sexual faculty use is strictly intended by God only for procreation. Church teaching that limits sex to procreative vaginal sex within a married couple is tradition and scripture-based, with a Natural Law cloak of simplistic use of interlocking body parts. It wilfully ignores widespread natural human and animal sexual behaviours that are clearly not for procreation. It ignores Aristotle’s uncritical words about the sexual activities of innately homosexual men.

A Guilt Free CD

God and the Bible imported into natural law

Although it is called natural law, because God was the creator / designer of everything, Aquinas and the Church often import God and the Bible into nature to buttress their natural sexual morality conclusions, to justify excluding some uses of our sexual faculties which they designate as ‘unnatural’. It would be more honest for the Church to say unprocreative non-marital uses are un-Godly or un-Biblical, rather than un-Natural, against ‘natural law’. The fusion and confusion of natural and doctrinal, makes challenging the Church’s version of ‘natural law’ frustrating.

St Thomas Aquinas was in at least one key instance a naughty deceptive moral theologian, because he buried and distorted some key passages in Aristotle to suit the Church and his own anti-gay hostility, in order to render homosexual activity ‘unnatural’.

Slippery as eels

The deliberate blurring of the boundaries between what humans can reason solely from nature, and God’s presumed intentions for his human creation, makes the Church’s so-called ‘natural law’ limits on sexual behaviour problematic. God and interpretations of the Bible are imported to justify some behavioural rules that can’t be inferred by reason alone from observing nature and through pure reasoning to decide what would be ‘right conduct’. But the Church nonetheless calls this fusion ‘natural law’.

Art of Shapeshifting book

The Church does not use or recognise a 21st century scientific understanding of the natural world and evolution, but sticks with a Bible-infused 13th century conception of nature. This makes a rational discussion of sexual morality with the Church a problem, because ‘nature’ keeps shapeshifting between a quasi-scientific natural world view, and a theological, bible-based conception of the world of nature. In the middle of a piece of nature-based natural law, suddenly the Bible or God are produced out of a hat. The Aquinas model of natural law with added Bible and God means the Church sets the rules and so tries to win every argument, because whenever it is losing on nature grounds, it calls on its traditional interpretation of the bible and theology to rescue it.

What’s next in Part Two?
Next time, we will consider how the Church’s sexual teachings are distorted because they only look through male eyes.

We will carefully consider male and female sexual body parts which Aquinas and the Church ignore, and contemplate Natural Law through women’s eyes, for a really fresh perspective. It’s very satisfying seeing things differently.

More about Aquinas and Natural Law ethics

Natural Law and Homosexuality in the Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Farley, Margaret. “Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics,” Continuum, 2006

 

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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.

“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.

Continue reading “T and Conversation”: Beyond Binary Pronouns

The Transformation of Christian Response to Homoerotic Love

You’d never guess it if your only knowledge of the churches and homosexuality came from Focus on the Family, NOM or California Catholic Daily in the US, or from Christian Voice or the rule-book Catholic blogs in the UK, or from breakaway groups in the Anglican communion worldwide, but we are in the midst of a dramatic, wholesale transformation of the Christian churches’ response to homoerotic relationships. This is clearly leading in the direction of full inclusion in church for queer Christians, and for evaluating couple relationships and their recognition in church on a basis of full equality. This is bound to lead in time to profound improvements in the  political battles for full equality, and in the mental health of the LGBT Christian community.

These are bold statements. Am I mistaken? Am I deluding myself? It is of course possible that this is a case of wishful thinking, that I am misreading or exaggerating the evidence.  It’s possible – but I don’t think so. The evidence is compelling, if not yet widely noted. To substantiate my argument, I want to present the facts, and their implications, in some detail. As there is too much for a single post, I begin today with just a summary, as heads of argument. I will expand on the main sections in later posts, which I have in preparation.

(For now, I have made no attempt to supply detailed substantiation or links – these will follow, as I expand later on each specific theme).

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...
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Looking Back, Looking Ahead

I have been thinking about this transformation for some time, but what really convinced me that this is a major, irreversible development was a result of an invitation I received to lead a session of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement’s 35th Anniversary Conference. The theme for conference is “Looking back, looking forward”. I will be giving a Catholic perspective on the last 35 years – and the next.

It’s looking at those next 35 years that is challenging. I don’t want to base my thoughts on guesswork, or on simple extrapolation, “if present trends continue“. The one thing we know about present trends, in almost any context, is that they never do continue. Feedback effects can either offset or exaggerate them. In reflecting on what could lie ahead, I considered only the changes that have already happened, the effects of these – and the very limited changes that we know for certain will happen over the next 35 years or so.  I did this initially for the Catholic Church specifically, and then realised that the method applies equally to the broader Christian churches as a whole. I begin by considering this broader church first.

The Past 35/ 40 years

“Out and Proud” Gay Visibility, Queer Families

The years since Stonewall have seen the rapid emergence of openly gay or lesbian, visible public role models far removed from the stereotypes of earlier years. This has included the emergence of well known same sex couples and queer families, in the news, on our screens, and in our neighbourhoods.  This has become increasingly visible over the years, and is now being given legal recognition in the movements for approval of marriage and family equality. The important consequence is that young people today have been raised, and are being raised, in environments where homoerotic relationships are seen to be entirely natural, and every bit as stable (or otherwise) than any other. Many youngsters are seeing this at first hand, in their friends and relations with two moms or two dads (just as others have single parents) – and are unfazed by it. Research evidence shows that young people are far more accepting of LGBT equality than their elders – and this applies within the churches, including even the evangelical churches, as well as in the general population.

Reevaluation of Scripture

Until recently, it was widely accepted that the Bible clearly opposed homosexuality, an assumption that underpinned the automatic denunciation of same sex relationships by most Christian denominations. Over the last thirty years, that has changed dramatically, with a substantial proportion – perhaps the majority – of modern Scripture scholars now agreeing that the evidence from Scripture is at best unclear, and that the traditional interpretations may be flawed by mistranslations or misinterpretations. Conversely, there has been fresh attention paid by some scholars to the specifically gay-friendly and affirming passages that have previously been neglected.

This re-evaluation began as the preserve of academics and specialists (like the growing number of openly gay or lesbian theologians), but is now starting to reach a popular audience as well.

Ordination of Queer Clergy

The re-evaluation of Scripture has underpinned the most dramatic manifestation of the transformation – the accelerating moves to accept for ordination as pastors or even as bishops men and women in public, committed and loving same sex relationships.

Traditionally, the churches could not countenance openly gay clergy, but in the days before Stonewall, when people in any case hid their sexuality, all that this meant was that gay priests and pastors where deeply closeted (just like their lay counterparts). That changed after Stonewall, as some men recognized that in honesty, they could not serve and remain closeted. Initially, the response of the churches was to refuse ordination to candidates who were known to be gay, and in some high profile cases, to remove from ministry priests and pastors who had already been ordained.

This has changed remarkably quickly. Today, almost all Mainline Protestant churches in the US, and the leading European Protestant churches, either ordain openly gay and lesbian pastors, or are seriously considering the possibility. The most recent example is that of 33 retired bishops of the United Methodist Church, who have signed a public statement calling for the full acceptance of ordination for openly gay or lesbian pastors in loving, committed relationships. 33 retired bishops urge end to gay clergy ban. Take careful note – these are retired bishops, not young hotheads, but the elder statesmen (and women) of the UMC. In parallel with this, the Presbyterian Church of the USA is at present well on its way to ratification of last year’s General Assembly resolution to formulate rules for ordination that did not discriminate against gay or lesbian candidates. (In Europe, it’s a dead issue: pastors of all sexual orientations are generally accepted).

Inclusion also applies at the highest levels of the clergy. There are now three openly gay and partnered bishops in the Episcopal and Lutheran churches, while others have been nominated, but not ultimately successful.

Gay weddings, in church.

Resolutions to approve ordination of queer clergy have often gone hand in hand with attempts to secure approval for church weddings, or blessing of same sex couples. These have been less successful so far, but I would think this is only temporary. The recognition of partnered gay or lesbian clergy is always qualified by the expectation that theses relationships be committed, faithful and publicly accountable, just as heterosexual pastors are by virtue of their church marriages. The simplest way to make gay partnerships accountable in the same way, is to provide the same structure – a wedding in church.

This is already being done in some churches and localities, but we should certainly expect the practice to spread, especially with more openly gay pastors ordained, and as civil marriage becomes more widely available for queer clergy.

Looking Ahead

These are the key developments affecting the LGBT community and the church over the past 35 -40 years. Looking ahead, I submit that there are only two things we can say with certainty: the past will have consequences that will affect the future; and there will be generational change. Let’s take these in reverse order.

Generational Change

Whatever else may happen over the next 35 or 40 years, the one thing we know with absolute certainty, is that everyone will get older. Benedict XVI will no longer be the Catholic pope, the Roman Curia will have a new set of faces. In the Protestant denominations, the present leaders will also have moved on, either to retirement, or to whatever awaits them in the afterlife. They too will have been replaced,

Who will these new faces be? Generally speaking, they will be the young men (and women) who are presently in training for ministry, who have been recently ordained, or who may even be still in high school. This the generation which is well known to reject the notion that homosexuality is a moral issue, and who are most enthusiastically supportive of gay clergy, gay marriage, and full LGBT inclusion in church.

Contrast them with the present generation of church leaders, who received their own formation for ministry at a time when it was regarded as axiomatic that homosexual acts were necessarily sinful, when the Biblical texts of terror were quoted without question, and when the notion of same sex marriage in church was simply unthinkable.

Can there really be any serious doubt that a future church led by today’s young adults will view homoerotic relationships very differently to that of the present?

The Speed of Change Thus Far

So, let us accept (provisionally) that profound change is on its way. How long will it tale? The generational analysis above suggests that it might not take too long at all – no more than the 35 years framework I adopted, somewhat arbitrarily. This becomes even more plausible when we consider the speed of change up to now, in respect of the spread of civil gay marriage, and of approval for LBGT pastors.

Personal homophobia and prejudice will linger – but institutional discrimination in all forms, whether by church or state, will disappear quite rapidly, exactly as institutional racism disappeared quite quickly in the civil rights era in the US, or following the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa.

Some Thoughts on the Catholic Church

Broadly speaking, much of the above also applies to the Catholic Church, especially the implications of generational change, and the fresh examinations of scripture, but there are also some unique considerations as well. Some of these will mitigate against the underlying trend to change, some will complement it.

  • Hierarchical control, and the expectation of obedience would superficially point to the resistance of change – but this expectation is itself becoming rejected.
  • Humanae Vitae and its fierce rejection of artificial contraception has never been widely accepted by the Church as a whole. The resulting recognition that it is permissible to disagree in good conscience with official doctrine on this single issue, has leant support to others who disagree in conscience on others – like choice/ abortion, and on homosexuality.
  • The impact of Vatican II. Although it might appear that the Curia has successfully rolled back the conciliar reforms, sometimes there are effects that take time to become apparent. One of these is what Sr Joan Chittister called the “Ticking Time Bomb” of lay involvement. Another is the dramatic decline in priest numbers since VII,
  • Another ticking time bomb is the remarkable rise of lay theologians. Not that long ago, the formal study of moral theology was something done by priests, for other priests, based on the writings of theologians from many centuries ago, with little input from social sciences, or from people with real life sexual experience. That is no longer the case. Even religious sisters were routinely excluded from theology studies, beyond what they might need to teach school level catechism. The rest of us were simply expected to accept the moral rules as handed down to us from on high.
  • That has changed dramatically. Theology is now widely studied, to the extent that the majority of theologians today are not priests. Some are religious sisters, others are married men and women – or even openly gay or lesbian. Add to the generational process described earlier, that Catholic priests now in training are in some cases being taught their theology by lay people, and we see that the generational shift for Catholic clergy could conceivably be even greater for Catholic clergy than for others.
  • Finally, the sexual abuse crisis has clearly shaken the church to its foundations. The ultimate effects can not yet be clearly seen, but already it is obvious that one result is a greatly increased resistance by lay people to automatic assumptions about authority and obedience, and a corresponding willingness in some quarters to engage in open defiance – as in the womenpriests movement. Inside the institutional church, there are at least some promising signs of an increased willingness to take seriously the concept of the listening church.

Conclusion

Change is clearly on the way – quite possibly, rapid change, across all or most major denominations. It will not be long before openly LGBT clergy, including bishops and other leaders, will be commonplace, in most denominations if not yet in all. There will be church weddings for same sex couples, including the weddings of clergy and their spouses.

With the increasing visibility of partnered gay clergy and bishops, it will become difficult. Even impossible for the arguments that our relationships are necessarily sinful to be taken seriously.

I now believe that under the impact of generational change, this transformation will be rapid – probably with in a generation or two. To those who find this unduly optimistic, I would point to the corresponding death of overt racism, which equally moved from something commonly expressed, and even justified in pseudo religious arguments, to a private weakness, which it is now unacceptable to express in public.

(Note: I am fully conscious that the above analysis applies primarily to the countries of Europe and the Americas, especially North America. I have omitted Africa and Asia where special circumstances apply. But do not believe that including them would seriously affect the main conclusions – except in the matter of timing).



Beyond Male and Female: Gender Trouble, Biology Trouble

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

– Galatians 3:28
In the context of religion, Christians should be familiar with the quotation from Galatians (even if some, such as in the Catholic Church, are unwilling to take the words literally, and apply them to ordination). From the world of science though, it is becoming clear that there is a truth in the words that goes way beyond a theological concept, and is instead, a substantial measure of quite literal truth. It may well be that there really is “neither male nor female”, at least not in the absolute binary sense that modern Western culture assumes. This has major implications for Christian sexual and gender theology.”

 

Judith Butler’s “Gender Trouble” was a seminal work in the early development of feminism and queer theory, and later of queer theology.  Butler’s central achievement was to demonstrate the fluidity of gender, which she described as “performance”.  The fluidity of gender however, also extends to biology. Far from a simple binary world composed of biological males and females, with perhaps a smattering of people with indeterminate gender (once described as hermaphrodites), modern science has shown that there are a far greater range of conditions that may be loosely described as “intersex” than previously realized – and that there are a surprising number of these people, some of whom will not even know of their true sex until they meet a need for some kind of medical testing (as with the case of the South African athlete Caster Semenya, who had no idea she was not fully female until she won a medal at the Beijing Olympics, competing as a woman). The same problems beset Sally Gross, who was raised as a male and ordained a Catholic priest, until the discovery that biologically she was in fact primarily female.

What is a Male?

To illustrate some of the complexities around biological sex, I want to share with you some extracts from two books that I have found helpful in extending my own understanding, Brian McNaught’s “Sex Camp”“, and Virginia Mollenkott’s Omnigender.

“Sex Camp” is a fictionalized presentation in novel form, of a real-life program that used to be run in New York state, in which groups of people from diverse backgrounds were brought together  in a secluded rural setting each summer, for serious training and discussion of matters around sexuality, gender, and faith.

In one chapter,  ”Bill” delivers a presentation to the group on “Gender Identity & Expression”.  This is from his introduction to the topic:

“When we talk about “Biological Sex,” and ask the question, we’re asking about it chromosomally, hormonally, gonadally, as well as with reference to the internal and external genitalia, and to brain dimorphism,” he said, writing the words on the whiteboard. Chromosomally, we are talking in terms of xx equalling a girl, and xy equalling a boy. Hormonally, we’re talking about ovaries for girls, and testicles for boys. With regard to internal genitalia, we’re talking about the Mullerian Structures for girls (fallopian tubes and uterus), and the Wolfian structures for boys (prostate, seminal vesicles, and vas deferens). Externally, we’re talking about the clitoris for girls, and the penis for boys. Brain dimorphism refers to the differences in the male and female brains.” 

Let’s pause, to digest this. I count six different methods of determining  a person’s sex.

  • chromosomes
  • hormones
  • gonads
  • internal genitals
  • external genitals
  • brains

The results of applying all of these to a single person will not always coincide. If they do not, how are we to decide, is this person “male” or “female”?

Furthermore, these measures do not yield simple binary opposites.

The problem with all of this is that not all girls are XX or boys XY, we all have the same hormones but in different level, we’re all born with clear gonadal or genital differences, and brain dimorphism isn’t a reliable indicator. So the question remains, “What is a male?”

Hormones

Some of this is familiar. External genitalia can be ambiguous (as they were at birth for Sally/Selwyn Gross, whose story I presented earlier). In these cases, parents and doctors typically make a decision to impose one or other gender on the child, and raise her/him accordingly. But the assigned gender may differ sharply from the other, less easily visible determinants. But let’s consider for now, just those hormones.

The male hormone testosterone and the female hormone oestrogen are familiar, and popularly taken as markers for masculinity or femininity. (Just consider the verbal expression, “testosterone-fuelled….”) to describe actions taken to be unequivocally masculine).   Some men take testosterone hormone supplements to adjust their physical appearance to a more conventionally “masculine” model, or to excel at masculine sports. For transsexuals, hormone therapy is commonly a major part of the transitioning process. But we all know that “men” differ in their degree of testosterone – and have a modicum of oestrogen too, and “women” differ in their oestrogen levels – but have some testosterone, too. Using hormonal measurement alone as a criterion, does int make any sense at  all to even think of someone as wholly male, or wholly female?

 Chromosomes

Chromosome patterns also do not fit the simple “xx” or “xy” binary split we are familiar with. In addition to x and y chromosomes, there are “blanks”, indicated as “o” – and some people have more than the usual two.

“With chromosomes”, Bill continued, “the male sperm determines the outcome. What happens, however, if instead of adding an “x” or a “y” chromosome to the female’s “x”, the male shoots a blank sex-determining chromosome and the child is born “xo?” 

The answer is –  Turner’s syndrome. There are many other variations from the simple xx/xy of popular understanding.

One out of every 1600 live births are “xo”. You can also get “xxx,” which will be a female, but there are a significant number who may have mental retardation. You can also get an “xxy”, which will often be a tall, infertile male.  We call this Klinefelter’s Sybdrome. You can get an “xyy”, and you can get an “xxyy”, which is a pure, bilateral hermaphrodite.”

And you can get an “xyxo”, which will be a short male whose gender and orientation are up for grabs”.

“The point is”, Bill said with a satisfied look, “that nature is not neat. Biological sex is not an easy issue. Further, when we talk about “male” and “female”, we’re talking about “sex”, “sexual identity”, and “sex role”. When we ask the question, “What is a male?” we’re not just asking about chromosomes, hormones, gonads, genitals and differences of the brain. We’re asking about sexual identity and sex role. We’re asking about both the assignment and rearing, as well as gender identity differentiation. ”  

Sex Camp”” is about much more than the ambiguities of biological sex and gender identity – this topic is just one of many in a a book which is packed with helpful, reliable information about sex and sexuality, and is also (as you would expect from the title) great fun to read.

I turn now to another book, in a more conventionally serious manner, by a respected theologian – and focussed exclusively on this topic.



Continue reading Beyond Male and Female: Gender Trouble, Biology Trouble

How a Woman Became a Dominican Priest, and Teacher of Moral Theology

So: just how does a woman become a Catholic priest in a major religious order? Sally Gross did just that: her story, with the explanation of just how it was possible, reveals some gaping holes in Catholic theology on women’s ordination and on sexuality, and problems in how governments deal with gender. It is also a moving personal story, of personal journeys, geographic, spiritual and biological, which are about as far-reaching as it is possible to go in one life-time.
The complex story is told at some length at the Natal Witness, which I have attempted to summarize below, quoting verbatim some extracts to illuminate key points. (Even in summary, it is lengthy – but stick with it. It graphically illustrates some critical deficiencies in Vatican thinking on sexuality and on ministry, which I touch on in conclusion).
The journey from Selwyn to Sally has taken Gross to the outer limits of human identity, both physically and psychologically and incorporated every dimension of her life: political, social and religious. Her experience has implications for all of us, and our institutions, both secular and religious, because our society insists on the existence of only two sexes, male and female.

Intersexed at birth, raised as a boy.

Gross is one of a small but significant, greatly misunderstood, minority of people who are loosely grouped together as “intersex”.
Biologically, hormone tests show she is clearly female, but at birth her external genitals appeared to be ambiguous, but essentially male. S/he was raised as a boy, complete with the ritual circumcision demanded by the Jewish faith of the family. However, s/he always knew that there was something “wrong”.
“Since the time I became conscious of myself as a very young child I had sense of something being awry in the area of gender, about my own bodiliness,” says Sally Gross. “I didn’t know exactly what it was, but there was a sense of things being awry, being different.”
He grew up as a Jewish boy in South Africa, but as a young man, became drawn to the Catholic Church, in part because he believed it to be more actively speaking up and acting against the evils of apartheid than his own Jewish religious leaders. He was baptised a Catholic in 1976. The following year he left the country, when his political activism against apartheid was becoming personally dangerous, going first to Botswana, then to Israel (where his parents then were).

Life as a Catholic Priest




Continue reading How a Woman Became a Dominican Priest, and Teacher of Moral Theology

Combating Children’s “Confusion” on Sexual Orientation, Gender Diversity

Chaz Bono’s appearance on Dancing with the Stars has led to substantial commentary, for and against. Some of this is leading to discussion of really important, but neglected issues. For example, one common but myopic response in opposition, and to other lesbian or gay visibility on our television screens and in our streets, is that children could be “confused” by seeing these non-conformist images, and so might grow up confused about their own identity.

The obvious problem with this assessment, is that it is only relevant to those children who happen to be born with an innate orientation, biological sex and gender identity which conform squarely with the extreme positions of the relevant sexual, biological or gender continuum. Biological and social sciences have shown conclusively that life is not so simple. If Kinsey is to be believed, most of us are not all exclusively heterosexual or homosexual. We also know that a small but surprisingly significant minority of people are born who are neither wholly male nor wholly female, but one variety or another of intersexed – and for many others, their gender identity (the way their mental state sees themselves) differs from their biological sex.

There are tragic tales of babies born with intermediate external genitals being submitted to surgery to conform with male or female stereotypes, only to discover later that the imposed external condition does not conform to internal biology. In other cases, apparently “normal” genitals differ from internal sexual biology, leading to a disjunction between the gender in which the child has been raised, and the child’s biology. Many gay men and lesbians will know from bitter personal experience the problems they have endured from bullying, verbal abuse or serious physical violence, simply for not conforming to perceptions of “normality”. Even 100% heterosexual men and women are often subjected to the same kinds of bullying, if in their demeanour or interests they present as effeminate men or masculine women – in the mistaken but common belief that these traits equate with a same-sex attraction.

There is a claim made that children’s sexual identities are not formed until late adolescence or early adulthood – and so we should shield them from knowledge of any non-conformist sexualities or gender expression until they are old enough to have made up their own minds. The claim is in fact false – the findings of science are that sexual orientation is fixed remarkably early in childhood (I have seen one research report that identifies it as settled even in the womb). But even if the claim were correct, the conclusion would be dangerous. If we accept that it is wrong to confuse a child by presenting her/him with possibilities for orientation or gender identity that differ from her/his own, how much more dangerous is it to present that child exclusively with such images?

Imagine, for example, how confusing it would be to children if every character in books, on film and TV, in sitcoms, dramas, news and documentary programs, were to be a gay man or lesbian, or if every one of them were to be seen as transgendered or cross-dressers. That would most certainly be confusing to young people whose natural orientation was to the opposite sex, and whose gender identity perfectly matched internal and external genital biology. But that is precisely the effect that we create for naturally same-sex attracted or intersex children, and those whole mental and biological genders are out of sync.

The danger to our children is not in presenting them with a range of sexual or gender models, but in perpetuating the myth that we all fit neatly into a simple binary divide, of exclusively heterosexual and biologically simple males and females. To protect the mental health of children (and shield them from prejudice and physical violence), we should be encouraging more, not less, diversity on our screens, and in public life.

Diane Ehrensaft, PhD: All Kids Deserve to Reach for the Stars — and Dance With Them, Too

“For many viewers of ABC’s mega-hit series Dancing With the Stars, the announcement that this season’s roster of contestants would include Chaz Bono, the son of Cher and the late Sonny Bono, marked a historic decision and a milestone for transgender people. To some, it made a less than welcome addition to the fall television line-up.

One viewer comment online stood out for me, given my work with gender non-conforming and transgender children and their families: “YOUR choice to bring Chaz Bono into the mix goes too far. I am not about to risk the potential for on screen dialogue about sex changes and gender confusion while my 7 and 9 year old are watching.”

-read more at Huffington Post

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