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:
- 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;
- There is a serious need for change in the Church’s teaching on heterosexual acts;
- 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.