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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Sex and Catholics 4: More Weaknesses in Natural Law
Sex and Catholics 3: Vatican II and Modern Specialists
Sex and Catholics 2: Gender perspectives and Evolution

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.

Towards Full GLBT Inclusion in Faith: Some Signs of the Times.

Progress towards full queer inclusion in church has been remarkable in some Christian denominations, and familiar enough for the US Mainline Protestant churches, and also in the European Lutheran churches. In the former, the chief marker of progress has been the steady dismantling of barriers to ordination and ministry for openly gay or lesbian clergy, even in non-celibate partnerships, as long as these are committed, faithful and publicly accountable, in a manner comparable to conventional marriage. In Scandinavia, the marker is even more dramatic – the expansion of same  – sex church weddings (already available in Sweden and Iceland, coming to Denmark this years, and probably to Finland next year).

Progress in other denominations and faith traditions has been less visible, but is also very real. As illustration, I offer three stories I have come across over the past 24 hours, representing three very different contexts.

 

Remembering Joseph Colombo – openly gay theology professor at a Catholic university.

Tomorrow, February 10th, San Diego University will hold a “memorial” for Joseph Colombo, who passed away on January 2nd this year. An obituary in Vista, the college newspaper, says of him

“He was really one of the leading figures in the department,” Nelson said, “not only in terms of his excellence in teaching and the hours he gave to advising his students, but in terms of thinking about the direction of the department and mentoring young faculty. It’s a huge loss to the department in terms of an elder figure who really was a guiding light for us all.”

Colombo actively served the LGBT community both at USD and throughout San Diego. He served as the chair of the board of directors at the San Diego LGBT Center from 1991-1995 and served as the advisor of PRIDE on campus. He was the first openly gay chair of a theology and religious studies department at a Roman Catholic University in the United States.

“He was a pioneer here in that as an openly gay faculty member, he paved the way for every queer student, every queer faculty member, that we can be out at USD,” theology and religious studies professor Evelyn Kirkley said. “He really was a great mentor, role model and friend.”

There was a time when Catholic church leaders discouraged, or even prohibited, laymen and women from even reading scripture. Those days have long passed, but it is not that long ago that only priests (not even religious sisters) were expected to study formal theology. Nowadays, there are more lay people than clergy studying theology – and many of them have gone on to teach it. A fair proportion of those will be gay, lesbian or trans, just as in the wider community. As they take their places in theology departments, Catholic and other, and contribute to academic research and publication, it is becoming increasingly untenable for the traditional, clerical theologians to simply ignore the queer perspective on their field.

 

Openly gay chaplain at Evangelical college.

At “Bible – thumping Liberal”, Ron Goetz observes that

“Being out on an EFCU campus (Evangelical/ Fundamentalist College/University) used to be impossible. Even today it is barely tolerated, if is tolerated at all” 

but goes on to publish some of the story of Doug Johnson, who was a fellow student with him at Simpson College (now University), a  denominational school of the Christian and Missionary Alliance in California.  After his time at Simpson, Johnson went on to a mid-Western Baptist seminary, and now works as a hospital chaplain.

 

Then I went back to a Baptist Seminary in the midwest and started to come out.  That is also where I had my first sexual encounter, in the dorm of the Baptist Seminary. Eventually I came to the place of full acceptance, but it was a journey, especially in the institutional church where in the 80′s homosexuality was viewed as anything from some kind of heinous crime against nature to an embarrassment which could screw up one’s chances to fulfill one’s calling as a minister.

Thankfully, that is gradually changing. I am still single, but not because I think of that as more “Christian.” I am single because I haven’t met the right guy yet. I hope it happens someday.

Collectively, Evangelical Christians are known as the major faith group most closely opposed to recognition and acceptance of LGBT relationships or civil rights, but even here, there is change, far more than most people recognize. Research evidence shows that younger evangelicals, especially the millenial generation, have very different concerns to their elders, and a substantial minority do not share their strong opposition to homosexuality and same – sex relationships, or to marriage and family equality. Some are actively promoting lgbt inclusion in their writing (Jay Bakker) or advocacy (Kathy Baldock), and evangelical scholars have produced some good LGBT  – supportive books on scripture. Like  Doug Johnson, there are more pastors who have found ways to serve openly. There are Baptist counterparts to the Catholic organisations Dignity and Quest: The Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists in the US, and Affirming Baptists in the UK. Some Baptists, as in all other denominations, are actively promoting marriage equality. (In South Carolina, lesbian pastor Nancy Petty at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church is refusing to sign marriage licences for any couples – until she can legally do so for all).

 

Orthodox Jewish gay wedding

Finally, just in case anyone imagines that progress to inclusion is limited to European and North American Christian groups, it is not. Change has if anything been swifter among Jews, and is beginning to stir also in Islamic groups, and in some African countries. I’m not going to give examples for all of these, but here’s one remarkable example from Orthodox Jewry:

Jewish gay wedding, Rabbi Steven Greenberg presiding

 

Yasher Koach to chatanim (חתנים or grooms) Yoni Bock and Ron Kaplan!

Standing in matching kittle’s (קיטלנים or traditionally white linen robes that Ashkenazim are known to be buried in after wearing it to their wedding as well as annually on Yom Kippur to signify purity, holiness and new beginnings) and orange kippah’s (כִּפוֹת or platter-shaped head caps worn for respect) the two men stood under the chupah (a symbol of the home that the couple will build together) in Washington D.C. holding hands.

– Lisa Finkelstein

(Presiding at this wedding was Rabbi Steven Greenberg, author of the groundbreaking study of homosexuality in Judaism, “Wrestling with God and Men“).

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Faith vs Religion: Ecclesiolatry, Scribes and Pharisees.

There is an important distinction between “faith”, which refers to belief and a relationship with the divine, and “religion”, which refers primarily to the human structures which support it, with their rules, rituals, and clerical castes. They are obviously linked, interdependent, and ideally, support each other. There are grave dangers though, when we lose sight of the importance of balance, for example by exaggerating the importance of religious structures, over authentic faith itself.

In recent weeks, I have found two important passages on this theme, by two very different authors, that I have wanted to write about – but have struggled to make the time to add my own response. Instead, I simply share with you the passages, and leave you to ponder the import yourselves.

The first is by the Catholic theologian James Alison, taken from a recent post at his website “The Portal and the Half-Way House: Spacious imagination and aristocratic belonging “, in which he refers to the way in which some Catholics use “the Church” as a weapon with which to coerce others into their own way of thinking. In a striking turn of phrase, he describes this as “Ecclesiolatry” – a form of idolatry, with “the Church” used as an idol to replace God:

You will probably have heard many different ways of talking about what “the Church” is, many of them quite frightening (in just the same way that many ways of talking about the Bible are frightening). You get the impression that you are hearing a discourse about power, or a discourse emerging from ownership of “position”, or a justification and defense of traditional and historical prerogatives. It is not necessarily the clerical caste in the Church who talk in these ways, though we are particularly susceptible to it. Often enough lay people, politicians and others, will also wield “The Church” as a weapon in cultural wars in much the same way as others wield “The Bible”. Indeed typically, while the default Protestant error is “Bibliolatry” – making an idol of the Bible, – the default Catholic error is “Ecclesiolatry” – making an idol of the Church. The idol worship to which each of our groups is prone is slightly culturally different, even if the underlying pattern is the same.

When we worship an idol, our love, which is in principle a good thing, is trapped into grasping onto something made in our own image. This “something”, which we of course do not perceive as an idol, then becomes the repository for all the security and certainty which we idolaters need in order to survive in the world. We are unaware that the tighter we grasp it, the more insecure and uncertain we in fact become, and the more we empty the object which we idolize of any potential for truth and meaning. And of course because love is in principle a good thing, for us to get untangled from its distorted form is very painful. Nevertheless, against any tendency we might have to blame the idol for being an idol, it is really the pattern of desire in us, the grasping, that is the problem, not the object. For just as the Bible is not an act of communication that we can lay hold of, but the written monuments to an act of communication that takes hold of us, so the Church is not an object that we can grasp, but a sign of our being grasped and held; not something that any of us owns, but the first hints, difficult to perceive, of Another’s ownership of us.

-from  James Alison Website.

The second is by Toby Johnson, a writer and former Catholic seminarian, in his book “Gay Spirituality“, writing about  “Scribes and the Pharisees”. Note the impact of replacing the familiar, but antiquated words we commonly meet in bibles and Catholic lectionaries, with modern terms we can more easily understand:

 

The only people Jesus specifically condemned in any way were the “Scribes and the Pharisees.” And it is telling that Bible translations generally keep these words as antiquated terms instead of translating them into modern idiom. For “Scribes and Pharisees” translates directly to “Church officials and conservative religious leaders.”

As the word suggests, the Scribes were the temple bureaucrats and the lawyers who could read and write and who, therefore, kept the records and managed the business of the Temple. The Pharisees were members of a lay reform movement in Judaism that called for a return to the old ways–to the “fundamentals”–insisting on literal interpretation of the Torah. They believed in angels and supernatural interventions and were always preaching that the end of the world was imminent. 

All Jewish men dressed for prayer by strapping phylacteries (little wooden boxes containing the written text of the prayer Shema Israel) to their forehead and left arm in literal obedience to the text which said to keep these words as a sign for the hand and a pendant on the forehead, and by covering their heads with a prayer shawl with fringes, knotted to signify the 613 rules of the Mishnah (the oral tradition extrapolated out of the Ten Commandments).

The Pharisees were ostentatiously religious: they wore elaborate phylacteries with broad straps and oversized shawls with extra long fringe to demonstrate how obedient they were to the letter of the law. The Pharisees were clearly the predecessors of our modern day conservative evangelists and TV preachers who bemoan the present state of the world, predict that according to Bible prophecies the end of the world is nigh, and proclaim how saved they are. 

“Woe unto you,” Jesus said, “Church officials and conservative religious leaders, hypocrites. Because you close the gates of heaven to those who are going in, you won’t go in yourselves.”

(Matthew 23:13)

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“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.

Continue reading “T and Conversation”: Beyond Binary Pronouns

Religious Divides in Support for Same-Sex Marriage

It is often assumed, quite incorrectly, that the disputes over marriage equality are between those standing up for religious belief (especially Christian belief), and secularists on the side of human rights. The fallacy of this assumption is neatly illustrated by the graphic below, in a post at the Public Religion Research Institute, drawing on a comprehensive analysis of data from the Pew Research Institute. This clearly shows that the disagreement is not between religion and human rights, but between the different shades of religious affiliation. Two of the three groups with the strongest support for equality are from religious groups – but not Christian religion (Jews, and other non-Christian faith groups).

Even within the Christian faith, there is clear division between denominations. White and Hispanic Catholics, and White Mainline Protestants, all show clear majority support for equality. (The research does not break out Black Catholics):

    • White Catholics: 56% in favour, 39% opposed
    • Hispanic Catholics: 53% in favour, 37% opposed
    • White Mainline Protestants: 52% in favour, 40% opposed

The arguments from “religious freedom” against legal recognition for all marriages must surely also take into account the freedom of those people of faith that support same – sex marriage, both in other faith groups, and within their own denominations. (In

Of the groups broken out for analysis, only Black Protestants, Mormons and Evangelicals are opposed  – but, it must be said, very strongly.

 

Beyond Secular vs. Religious: Religious Divides in Support for Same-Sex Marriage


In 2011, majorities of most religious groups favored allowing gay and lesbian couple to marry legally, illustrating that the old narrative of battle lines between secular supporters and religious opponents no longer serves as an accurate characterization of the landscape of the same-sex marriage debate. In the general population, 2011 was also the first year on record in which supporting same-sex marriage was not a minority position. In May, several surveys (all asking slightly different versions of the same question) found that a majority of the public supported allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry. PRRI’s May survey found that 51% of Americans were in favor, and 43% were opposed.

-full analysis at   Public Religion Research Institute.

This strength of feeling from the opponents, and the rather milder feelings of supporters, must be assessed together with the evidence from several sources that opposition is dropping in degree, as well as in extent, while supporters are growing in both numbers and intensity of feeling.

The striking contrast between the views of younger people, including younger Evangelicals, and their older co-religionists shows clearly that this shift within the churches towards more widespread, and more intense, support for marriage equality will surely continue to grow:

There are large generational differences between Millennials (age 18-29) and older Americans on the issue of same-sex marriage. Sixty-four percent of Millennials favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, a rate that is more than 20 points higher than among those ages 30 and above (42%). This generational gap persists within every religious group, including more conservative religious groups. For example, 66% of Catholic Millennials favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, 15 points higher than Catholics ages 30 and above (51%). Even among white evangelical Protestants—the group most opposed to same-sex marriage—nearly 4-in-10 (39%) white evangelical Protestant Millennials favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally, a rate that is more than 20 points higher than that of white evangelicals ages 30 and older (18%).

–   Public Religion Research Institute.

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.



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