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).
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
- Bishop urges change in all church teaching on sexual relationships
- Robinson 1: Hetero/Homo, Catholic Sexual Teaching Stands (Or Falls) Together
- Bishop Robinson: Catholic Assertions, Not Arguments
- Bishop Robinson on “The Offence Against God”
- Italian Celebrity Funeral: Church and Homosexuality
- Theologian James Alison: Same – sex Unions Are Not Second – Best
- A Bishop Talks About (gasp) Sex (dgsmith.org)
- Valuable Discussions of Christian Sexual Ethics: Geoffrey Robinson and Jeffrey John (bilgrimage.blogspot.com)
- Bishop, Governor, and Theologian Highlight Symposium’s Second Day (newwaysministryblog.wordpress.com)
- In Rome and Detroit, Two Very Different Sets of Priorities (thewildreed.blogspot.com)