Monday, August 11, 2008

Catholic Bible Thumping and Protestant Divine Order: The Men Who Rule Us, re: Gay Human Beings

I’ve been mulling over the address Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, gave on 30 July at the Lambeth Conference. To be specific, I’m intrigued by Kasper’s insistence that the Anglican communion toe the Roman line and condemn homosexuality.

Most of all, I’m intrigued by the theological basis of Kasper’s argument. Kasper told the Anglican audience, “This teaching [i.e., the catechetical teaching about homosexuality as intrinsically disordered] is founded in the Old and New Testament and the fidelity to scripture and to Apostolic tradition is absolute."

I’m bowled over by Kasper’s assertion that the catechetical teaching that homosexuality is intrinsically disordered is founded in the Old and New Testament and the fidelity to scripture and to Apostolic tradition is absolute. Kasper was once a highly regarded theologian—that is, he was so regarded prior to his ascendancy to power in Rome, after which his career as a theologian took a direction similar to that of his compatriot and colleague Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. After both men rose to high positions in the Vatican, their theology began to lose its critical (honest) edge and to become a tool serving the power and control interests of Rome.

As a theologian, Kasper knows better, I suspect. He knows full well that to claim that the Catholic teaching about homosexuality is founded in the scriptures and is absolute is absolute balderdash. The Catholic approach to the question of homosexuality has never stressed the scriptures.

It has avoided that stress for a number of reasons. In the first place, Catholic sexual ethics are founded in an Aristotelian philosophical presupposition that human sexuality is “ordered” to procreation, and that all human beings can determine this through natural law. Aristotelian philosophy, as received and reinterpreted by neo-Scholastic theology, is the basis of the Catholic teaching that homosexuality is intrinsically disordered—not the scriptures.

Catholic theology (and the magisterium) have also historically shied away from a scripture-based approach to homosexuality because within the Catholic tradition, there is a strong recognition that the scriptures alone do not yield a clear, consistent sexual ethic. Catholic theology has always wedded scripture to tradition; it has always insisted that the scriptures must be read within the context of a tradition handed down within the community of faith, which shapes how we hear and interpret the Word of God.

And this insistence is sane, when the question is how the scriptures treat homosexuality. When Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) came out with his 1986 “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,” a significant number of Catholic theologians criticized that pastoral letter’s attempt to base the teaching that homosexuality is intrinsically disordered on scripture. It was this pastoral letter that first gave a high profile to the term “intrinsic disorder” in Catholic teaching about homosexuality.

Just as the term “intrinsic disorder” is an innovation on the tradition—the introduction of a new term to the traditional discussion of homosexuality, an innovation that has dangerous consequences, in that it suggests that the nature of gay human beings is disordered—the way Ratzinger used scripture in his 1986 letter is also innovative, theologians have maintained. Essentially, though Ratzinger’s letter seeks to argue that there is a strong and consistent scriptural basis for condemning homosexuality, the letter tacks scriptural quotations onto the traditional natural-law argument that sex is ordered to procreation. Ratzinger uses bible verses as proof texts for philosophical and theological positions that he has already arrived at without recourse to the scriptures.

Theologians analyzing Ratzinger’s 1986 letter noted that it did not attempt a careful exegesis of the biblical proof texts appended to the natural-law argument. Ratzinger did not try to understand the original meaning of the handful of proof texts that Christians cite to condemn homosexuality; he did not seek to place these texts in their historical context. In ripping them out of their original historical context and prescinding from careful exegetical analysis of the texts, he weakens his argument that scripture provides some kind of consistent and clear condemnation of homosexual persons and their behavior.

I assume that, as a theologian and a powerful Vatican figure, Cardinal Kasper knows these critiques of Ratzinger’s 1986 attempt to ground Catholic teaching that homosexuality is intrinsically disordered in claims about scripture as the source of an absolute, consistent, and clear condemnation of homosexuality. If Cardinal Kasper is aware of this widely held critique of Ratzinger’s 1986 letter, then I wonder why he would think it feasible or wise even to weigh in on a highly controversial theological point that demands much more discussion, as he also weighed into the politics of another religious communion. I have some reflections on these points, which I’ll offer after I examine some of the reasons a large number of theologians today reject the attempt to ground an anti-homosexual ethic on scripture.

The Jewish and Christian scriptures are highly problematic documents for anyone seeking seriously to maintain that “the bible” condemns homosexuality. They are problematic for the following reasons:

The issue of "homosexuality" is hardly ever mentioned in either the Jewish or Christian scriptures.* The texts to which those trying to ground condemnation of gay human beings in the bible point are a tiny handful of texts within a huge body of sacred literature that has much more central focal points.

Given the almost total lack of any interest in the question of homosexuality in either the Jewish or the Christian scriptures, one cannot but be amazed at the attempt of many Christians today to make this issue the issue on which the entire tradition stands or falls. Given the very strong, clear, consistent emphasis of both the Jewish and Christian scriptures on the theme of practical compassion as the very heart and center of authentic religion—do justice, love God, walk humbly with your God—one has to be even more amazed at the certainty of those Christians today for whom homosexuality is the issue that they are on the right track.

When one looks at this certainty in light of the central focus of Judaism and Christianity—practical compassion—one recognizes that something is seriously awry today, in Christian thinking and Christian practice. On the basis of a tiny handful of texts that do not reflect the central preoccupation of the scriptures stated in text after text, how can Christians be so certain that they have the right to propose what is not compassionate at all: the demonization and exclusion of gay human beings as the key task of the churches at this point in history?

The tiny handful of texts on which some Christians today seek to ground the condemnation of gay human beings and their committed relationships is exegetically problematic in the extreme. Every text from both Jewish and Christian scriptures cited to “prove” that homosexuality is wrong is exegetically problematic. Not a single one is clear. The exegetical work done on these texts for some time now shows overwhelmingly that the texts do not provide a clear and consistent basis—a strong foundation—for what is now the central thrust of many Christians across the globe: demonizing and excluding their gay brothers and sisters.

It is self-evident that this handful of exegetically problematic texts cannot be about what contemporary people know as homosexuality, because the psychological concept of innate same-sex attraction and the term used to identify it (that is, “homosexuality”) were not even possible within the historical contexts in which the Jewish and Christian scriptures were written. The recognition of psychologists that some people throughout history and in every culture find themselves predisposed from birth to a more or less consistent lifelong attraction to members of their own sex did not happen until the latter part of the 19th century. At that time, psychological researchers who began to document and study the transhistorical, crosscultural phenomenon of lifelong same-sex attraction coined a term, “homosexuality,” to describe the phenomenon they were studying.

The scriptures could not speak of a phenomenon of which the biblical writers had not even dreamed, when they wrote the canonical texts. The scriptures could not condemn homosexuality when not only the concept, but a term to describe it, was totally unknown to the biblical writers. Anyone who thinks that the bible is concerned with the phenomenon of homosexuality is retrojecting a late-19th century and 20th-century term and psychological insight into the scriptures.

Jesus—whose life and teaching provide the definitive window through which Christians are to view everything—never once mentions homosexuality. Jesus is completely silent about the issue that, for many Christians today, is the defining issue for all Christians, the issue on which the churches will stand or fall.

Jesus is not silent, by contrast, about practical compassion, love, justice, concern for the least among us. Jesus is not silent about refraining from throwing the first stone, eating with outcasts, being judged by the measure we use to judge others. Jesus is not silent about the matters of practical compassion that form the very heart and center of Judaism and of Christianity.

Throughout the history of the church, the scriptures have been read as if they absolutely, definitively, clearly, and consistently bless practices that Christians have, in time, recognized as immoral. Christians have been absolutely certain that the bible consistently and clearly speaks of the need for men to dominate women. The bible has been used to justify “holy” wars throughout history. For millennia, the scriptures were read as endorsing slavery. I grew up in a culture in which the bible’s defense of segregation, and of the right of white people to demean people of color, was taken for granted, and was preached about in churches. The ugly antisemitism that resulted in such atrocious events in the 20th century has biblical roots. It is grounded on the claim of many Christians throughout history that the Christian scriptures condemn the entire Jewish people as deicides.

The scriptures have been cruelly misused time and again throughout history. I once asked a class of undergraduate theology students if they thought that it is possible to formulate a norm by which we can determine when the scriptures are being misused. A thoughtful student from a conservative Catholic family raised her hand and said, “The scriptures are being misused when they are being used to hurt anyone.”

I can think of few better answers to this question.

As I have said, I suspect that Cardinal Kasper knows all that I have just written. I am a mere layperson, and a failed theologian, at that. He’s a cleric, a cardinal, an accomplished theologian who walks the halls of power.

If the good cardinal does know how shaky the scriptures are as a foundation for a pan-Christian affirmation today that homosexuality is intrinsically disordered, why did he trouble himself to pitch the biblical argument to his Anglican confreres as he sought to line them up behind the pope at Lambeth? In my view, the answer to that question is rather obvious—and it’s also rather ugly.

The men who rule us in the churches today are willing to grasp at straws—and even to distort and mute the primary emphasis of the Judaeo-Christian scriptures, which is the call to practical compassion—to assure their continued dominance within the churches. The cross-communion alliance Kasper is promoting is not really about preserving the church from the heresy of welcoming gay persons and their committed relationships.

It’s about preserving the domination of males within the governing structures of the churches. The scriptures do consistently condemn homosexuality—that is, the scriptures that belong to the men who rule us, the scriptures they claim the unilateral right to interpret for us, to preach to us, to use against us (and to justify their own power). Their scriptures condemn gay people, because it is in the interests of those who wield power in the churches to maintain their dominance and control of women and men they regard as feminine. It is in their interest to select instrumentally useful issues to shore up the bogus “natural order” which they maintain is essential if the churches and civilization are to perdure—the order in which they will always find themselves on top.

Not only are Catholic leaders today willing to buy into theological stances alien to Catholic tradition—e.g., the claim that the scriptures provide an absolute foundation for condemning homosexuality as intrinsically disordered—in order to safeguard anti-gay teaching, but the men who rule in the Protestant churches also appear just as intent to adopt Catholic theological positions antithetical to the theological roots of their own traditions for the same reason. On both sides of the fence, the men who rule the churches seem intent to discover any ammunition they can find, at hand, no matter how outré or far-fetched, when questions about "traditional" anti-gay teaching threaten to call into question their right to rule.

Recently, the United Methodist bishop of Florida Timothy Whitaker published an essay about why one should be a Christian. The essay is to be found on the website of the Florida United Methodist Conference ( The essay notes that central to the Christian worldview are presuppositions about the “ordering of sexuality.”

In a previous posting on this blog (, I critiqued Bishop Whitaker’s statement about the case of Rev. Karen Dammann. Rev. Dammann is an openly lesbian United Methodist minister whose case caused controversy in the United Methodist Church in 2004. As my reflections on Bishop Whitaker’s statement about the Dammann case note, the bishop places great emphasis on what he sees as the “revelation of the divine order for the sexual life of human beings.”**

As my posting about Bishop Whitaker’s Dammann statement suggests, this language about divine order is curious within an evangelical context. It imports into that context language and philosophical concepts central to the Catholic sexual ethic, but absent from Protestant thought about sexual morality until recently, when the Protestant tradition began to select some (but far from all) aspects of Catholic natural law theology it found useful to combat welcome and inclusion of gay members.

To what should we attribute the meeting of the minds of the men who rule us in the churches today—their willingness to cross traditional confessional boundaries and adopt theological ideas from each other’s traditions, in order to hold the line against their gay brothers and sisters? Growing ecumenism?

I don’t think so. Frankly, I think that, in the last analysis, this is all about power—stinky power, power over others, corrupt power that willingly distorts both scripture and tradition to assure the continued dominance of heterosexual males within the power structures of the church. It is, after all, their tradition and their scripture. It is they who talk to us about the meaning of the bible; when they have the power to do so (and they decidedly do), they will do all they can to shut down the conversation, to demonize and exclude those of us with critical perspectives.

And it behooves us those of us who are the merely preached to (and preached down to), rather than those doing the preaching (and defining and demonizing and excluding) to remember that.

*On my reasons for placing the word "homosexuality" in quotation marks here, see third point in my list of arguments re: scripture.

**On the leading role Bishop Whitaker played in the 2008 United Methodist General Assembly's decision to uphold its current teaching that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian discipleship, and on Bishop Whitaker as one of the leaders of the movement to resist more welcoming and inclusive stances towards gay people in the UMC, see my blog posting "We Are All Care of One Another" at


Unknown said...

Call Kasper the Karl Rove of Catholic theology.

The Church heirarchy is well aware that the vast majority of their followers want their lessons and theology spoon fed to them. Deep, honest study of the Bible and Christian theology would be gravely upsetting to the current order. People don't want that.

Kasper is just providing the press and Angilcan Bishops their talking points. That's all they have to's "Okay to love the sinner and hate the sin," and we know it's a sin because both the Old and New Testaments say so. And Kasper and the Bishops know full well that if they spread that message, it is too easily adopted by the lay members of their church...because the Bishop/Cardinal said so...I don't have to go look that up.

William D. Lindsey said...

BJohnM, thank you very much for your insightful comments on both this post and my male-female complementarity post a day ago. They encourage me, because they help me see that what I hope to do on this blog may be succeeding a bit: my goal is to take the theological resources I've been given through my education and teaching career, and make them accessible to a wide audience. The churches have hoarded such resources. Church members deserve to have access to them.

I like the analogy of Kasper as the Catholic Rove. It fits, sadly. You're right, I fear he's just providing talking points in which he himself can hardly believe wholeheartedly.

And I also liked your comments about the next logical step, if marriage is only for procreation: we should require tests demonstrating a couple can conceive, and oaths in which the couple commits itself to conceive. That is, we should do that if we're logical.

I've heard that totally la-la land argument you mention, about the possibility of miracles for a male-female couple who can't conceive. People who introduce possible miracles as their best argument for ethical positions are tacitly admitting they just don't have a persuasive argument.

Unknown said...

Dr. Lindsey,
Thank you very much for your work on this blog. I am a mid-career professional working on a MS in Bioethics. I am currently working on a paper on reproductive ethics, specifically focusing on how John Robertson's concept of "procreative liberty" is applicable to gay and lesbian couples that wish to use assisted reproductive technologies. Your analysis here is helpful, especially in refuting arguments from Gilbert Meilaender.

William D. Lindsey said...

Actosrep, thanks for your kindness in letting me know what I've posted is useful, even to someone studying bioethics. It delights me to know that what I am sharing is helpful to others--such feedback keeps me thinking and struggling to write. Good luck with your work on the M.S.