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Bishop Robinson: Catholic Assertions, Not Arguments

In his address to the New Ways Ministries’ conference  From Water to Wine:  Lesbian/Gay Catholics and Relationships,  Bishop Geoffrey Robinson devoted a major part of his address to demonstrating just why that teaching is unsound. Yesterday, I outlined the first of his three reasons for making such claim, that the argument from “God’s purpose in nature” is unsound.

Now, I move on to the second of his three arguments against the traditional teaching on sex :

The second reason for change is that the statements of the Church appear to be assertions rather than arguments

This is pretty much the same point that the medieval historian Mark Jordan makes (in “The Silence of Sodom“) about the Vatican’s rhetorical style – that it makes no attempt to present a rational argument for its claims. Instead, it simply depends on endlessly repeating its own claims in different forms, with no substantiation except its own assertions. Instead of attempting to win over its adversaries by persuasion, it simply wears them down. Jordan’s conclusion from this is that there is no point in trying to deal with  Vatican sexual theology by attempting to engage with it as if it had any rational basis. To do so, he argues, is to make the mistake of engaging with it on its own terrain. Instead, we must find other ways of dealing with it.

Some time ago, I wrote to James Alison to ask for help understanding a particular passage in the CDF Hallowe’en Letter. His response was that I should simply avoid wasting time on the letter. There’s no point, he wrote, in wasting time on nonsense. I remembered this when reading that part of his long interview with Vox Nova, which deals with the CDF description of homosexuality as an “intrinsically disordered” inclination. There has been a lot of hurt and anger resulting from that description, and a great deal of time spent in either attempting to refute it, or defend it. But, says Alison, the actual meaning of the term is unstable, constantly shifting to suit whatever conclusion the Vatican apologists want to extract from it. The lesson from both Jordan and Alison then, would be to avoid grappling with orthodox sexual theology from within its own frame of reference. Instead, we must formulate our own framework for a system of sexual ethics that bypasses the Vatican’s flawed assumptions.

This is what Bishop Geoffrey Robinson did in his Baltimore speech to New Ways Ministry. After showing that the basic premises of official teaching are unsound (as I described yesterday), he makes no attempt to engage with the arguments that follow from them – because, as he notes, there are no arguments, only unsubstantiated assertions. Observing further that the emphasis in the doctrine is unsatisfactory obsession with genital acts, ignoring the  people who perform the actions, he proceeds to construct a new, reasoned framework on the basis of relationships – which I will get to in later posts. For now, this is what he says about the Church’s use of assertions to replace argument (the full text is posted on his own website).

Second Argument

The second reason for change is that the statements of the Church appear to be assertions rather than arguments. No one disputes the fact that sexual intercourse is the normal means of creating new life and that it can be a powerful force in helping couples to express and strengthen their love. Both the unitive and procreative elements are, therefore, foundational aspects of marriage as an institution of the whole human race. But are they essential elements of each individual marriage, no matter what the circumstances, e.g. the couple who are told by medical experts that any child they had would suffer from a serious and crippling hereditary illness? Are they essential elements of every single act of sexual intercourse? On what basis?

There are always problems when human beings claim that they know the mind of God. So is the statement that it is God’s will, and indeed order, that both the unitive and procreative aspects must necessarily be present in each act of sexual intercourse a proven fact or a simple assertion? If it is a proven fact, what are the proofs? Why do church documents not present such proofs (6)? Would not any proofs have to include the experience of millions of people in the very human endeavour of seeking to combine sex, love and the procreation of new life in the midst of the turbulence of human sexuality and the complexities of human life? Is an ideal being confused with a reality?

If it is only an assertion, is there any reason why we should not apply the principle of logic: What is freely asserted may be freely denied? If it is no more than an assertion, does it really matter who it is who makes the assertion or how often it is made? Where are the arguments in favour of the assertion that would convince an open and honest conscience?



Jordan, Mark D: The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism

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


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

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

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

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

First Argument (Against Catholic Teaching on Heterosexual Morality):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Argument

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Lk. 15:11-32

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

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


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

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

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

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

The thesis of his paper is in three parts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bishop urges change in all church teaching on sexual relationships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

National Catholic Reporter.

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

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

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

New Ways is not officially recognised

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

He is only one among thousands of bishops.

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

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

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

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

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

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 Church, Power & Abuse

Depressing church news over the past two months has led me to pick up and start reading a book which has been on my shelves some time, but which I have previously only dipped into.  The removal of  excommunication of SPXX  members has received wide and ongoing publicity; clerical sexual abuse is again in the news with the FBI reopening old investigations in LA Diocese, and fresh revelations over   Fr Marcial Maarciel Delgado of the Legionnaires of Christ.  Meanwhile, on the progressive wing of the church, there has been less coverage in the MSM of the silencing or excommunication of the priests  Fr Roger Haight,  Geoffrey Farrow and Roy  Bourgeois, or of bizarre goings-on in the parishes of St Mary’s, Brisbane and St Stephen’s, Minneapolis, where attempts to muzzle complete parishes have led to resistance (St Mary’s) or exodus (St Stephen’s).
Confronting Power and Sex

What all these have in common is that they are concerned with power in the church – its extension, its abuse, or attempts to defy or resist it.  so I picked up again  “Confronting Power & Sex in the Catholic Church”, by Bishop Geoffrey Robinson.  I am pleased that I did.  Published in 2007, this book has much to say that is directly relevant to current events. Although I have not yet finished reading, and this is far from a formal review, I have already found much of value that I thought would be worth sharing.

Bishop Robinson was Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney from 1984, and in 1994 was appointed by the Australian Bishops to a position of leadership in the Australian church’s response to revelations of sexual abuse.  Following his retirement in 2004, he felt freer in speaking his mind, leading to the publication of this valuable book.

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