Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Adriano Oliva's Amours: L'Église, les divorcés remariés, les couples homosexuels: Book Notes

I've just finished reading the new book by the noted French Dominican Thomist scholar Reverend Adriano Oliva, Amours: L'Église, les divorcés remariés, les couples homosexuels (Paris: Cerf, 2015), and would like to offer you today some notes about this important new study. Oliva is a distinguished student of the very important Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas, on whose understanding of natural law much Catholic theology has been built over the centuries. He is president of the Leonine Commission, the group charged with producing and publishing faithful critical editions of Aquinas's work, and is a research fellow at the Institut de recherche et d’histoire des textes, and a researcher with the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), both in Paris.

Unfortunately for English readers who do not read French, Amours is not yet in English translation. The French is, however, lucid and accessible for those who read at least some French. What I want to offer you with my following comments is more a set of notes about the book than a review per se

As Oliva states in the preface of his book (pp. 7-8), he's writing it to address a specific context: this is the current ongoing discussion among Catholic theologians, if not among pastoral leaders of the Catholic church, about how the Catholic church might most effectively (and responsively) deal with divorced and remarried Catholics and with LGBT Catholics, particularly those in committed marital relationships.* In other words, Oliva is addressing the questions that, for many lay Catholics and Catholic theologians in the developed sector of the world, occupied central attention as the Vatican's synod on the family took place last year.

And so it's possible to read Oliva's book as a theological contribution — a theological backdrop, if you wish — to the discussions that took place at the synod on the family in 2015. Perhaps for that reason and also because, as I'll explain below, it grounds a more positive approach to LGBT people in the very traditional theology of Thomas Aquinas, Oliva's book has attracted the dismayed attention and hot condemnation of right-wing Catholic publications in the U.S. — though, as I've noted, the book has not even been translated into English yet, and for that reason, will have limited influence in American theological conversations.

Amours is divided into two parts, each of which functions as a sort of extended theological essay on its topic. The first section grounds a theology of marriage that might welcome and more positively affirm Catholics who have been divorced and remarried in Aquinas's theology of marriage. The second part of the book, on which my comments will focus, looks at homosexuality (and the church's pastoral response to LGBT people) in light of Aquinas's theology.

As Oliva maintains in the second essay dealing with a pastoral outreach to LGBT people (pp. 75-7), Aquinas did not and could not, of course, know the terms "homosexual" or "homosexuality," since those terms — and the psychological concept of innate predisposition to erotic attraction toward members of one's own sex to which they point — were not coined until the latter half of the 19th century. Nonetheless, as Oliva also points out (and it's for this, in part, that the Catholic right is attacking him: he dares to say that Aquinas knew and accepted that some people are made homosexual by the Creator) (pp. 77-8), Aquinas was fully aware of the existence of people with such an inclination, and his theology contains clear "intuitions" about such human beings on which a more positive pastoral approach to them may be based.

In short, Aquinas understood — and says plainly — that the nature of some people inclines toward erotic attraction to members of their own gender, and he regarded this natural inclination as a given (p. 77, citing Summa Theologica, II[a]-II[ae], q. 154, a. 11, resp.; and Commentary on Romans, c. 1, lect. 8). To appreciate this intuition of Aquinas, one must distinguish, Oliva proposes, between what he said and thought about sodomy as a moral issue, and what he said and thought from a metaphysical standpoint about the nature of people who happen to be inclined to homosexual attraction (p. 78f). With regard to the metaphysical question, Aquinas's theology points to the conclusion that he regarded those who are oriented to erotic attraction to members of the same sex as acting from an attraction that is natural for them.

And so there's a basis within Thomas's natural law theology for viewing homosexuality as a natural variant of human sexuality, deserving of recognition and respect as such by the Catholic church, since the theology that grounds magisterial teaching about human sexuality gives a very prominent place to natural law thinking. This is not, of course, to say that Aquinas's understanding of homosexuality, such as it was, should be the end-all and be-all of theological or pastoral reflection about this topic in the contemporary world. Oliva reminds us of the historical context within which Aquinas looked at the issues of sodomy (or masturbation, or nocturnal emission of semen) (pp. 78-9): because (following Aristotle), he saw the male role in reproduction as active and primary, and the female role as passive and secondary, he was more or less completely disinterested in the possibility that women, too, might be inclined to erotic attraction to each other.

He concluded that sodomy, masturbation, or even nocturnal emission of semen by men, even when this occurred by "indirect provocation," were exceptionally grave sins. He did so because of how he framed the male and female roles, relatively, in the act of procreation. Aquinas's natural law theology and the Aristotelian notions about gender and reproduction that inform it have given to Catholic theological thinking about matters of human sexuality a peculiar — I'd say strange — emphasis on what heterosexual males do as the most important pole of moral thinking about human sexuality: they have, in fact, privileged the worldview of heterosexual males (at the expense of women and LGBT people), as if who heterosexual males are and what they do — sexually, in particular — is the turning point of the moral universe.

I find Oliva's pastoral application of his Thomist insights particularly useful. As he notes (p. 76), many people want to argue today that Christian communities can welcome people whose nature is homosexual, while condemning the "acts" that people made homosexual do on the basis of that nature. And so as he points out, the Catechism of the Catholic Church both urges Catholics to recognize that those who are homosexual do not choose their nature (¶ 2359), and to condemn the "acts" of homosexual people as "intrinsically disordered" (¶ 2357).

But since acts follow nature (agere sequitur esse), there's something not only illogical but downright cruel in asking people to accept and affirm their nature as God-given, and then forbidding them to act on the basis of that nature. The prohibition of acts — they're "intrinsically disordered" — that stem from a nature one has previously affirmed as God-given and as morally neutral is nonsensical. It implies that, in fact, one does not welcome and affirm homosexual people qua homosexual people, and that one does, in fact, regard not merely the acts but also the natures of those who are homosexual as intrinsically disordered. 

We realize our natures precisely in and through the acts we do in conformity to our natures. As Oliva points out, the magisterium itself, notably with the encylical Humanae vitae, recognizes the legitimacy of sexual acts (between married heterosexual people) that do not aim at procreation, but which express and build up the relationship between spouses. 

But the magisterium simultaneously forbids any and all sexual acts between homosexual people, including those in loving, committed unions because, it maintains, those acts are not and cannot be open to procreation. There is, in other words, a disparity between how the magisterium itself treats the non-procreative sexual acts of loving, committed heterosexual couples and those of loving, committed homosexual couples, though it maintains that the nature of those who are homosexual is not to be disparaged and they are to be treated with compassion and sensitivity.

But at a pastoral level, the only moral advice it offers to those made homosexual by God is to live lives of perpetual celibacy regardless of whether they are called to that state of life or not. While for heterosexual people, who are enjoined to refrain from genital sexual acts until they marry, the option is open to marry, and once married, the option is open to engage in non-procreative sexual acts as long as a couple pursues that goal by "natural" means . . . .

The most illuminating section of this essay on Aquinas and homosexuality is for me the pastoral conclusion that Oliva draws from his sounding of Aquinas's theology. I'll offer my own translation of a summary passage that draws my attention here: Oliva writes,

The church has of necessity the obligation not only to educate its members so that they gain a correct understanding of homosexuality and to orient them to the "perfect" and complete Christian path, but also to witness to the world regarding the truth about both the nature and the dignity of homosexual people, as it works to counter in this way every kind of homophobia (p. 118).**

And, of course, we're very far from such an understanding of how to deal with homosexual people from a pastoral standpoint in some cultures, notably in the Catholic church in the U.S. at present — witness the overt hostility to Oliva and his work in right-wing Catholic circles today, where it's possible to find online direct, ugly attacks on Oliva himself as a "sodomitical heretic Dominican" seeking to lead the church astray with claims that homosexuality is "natural."

*It's important to note that Oliva distinguishes between marriage proper, a term that he thinks must be reserved (from a theological standpoint) for heterosexual couples due to the possibility of procreation in heterosexual unions, and the marital unions of homosexual couples.

**L'Église assume non seulement la tâche d'éduquer ses enfants à avoir une compréhension droite de l'homosexualité et de les orienter vers une vie chrétienne "parfaite" et complète, mais aussi celle de témoigner au monde de la vérité sur la nature et sur la dignité des personnnes homosexuelles, en combattant ainsi toute forme d'homophobie.

The illustration is from the book's page at the website of Éditions du Cerf.

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