Thursday, March 24, 2011

On the Curious Appeal of Anti-Gay Biblical Literalism for Some Contemporary Catholics

One of the fascinating aspects of some recent blog discussions I've tracked about the Catholic church's stance on gay issues is this: a certain segment of American Catholics today seems sold on the argument that the bible condemns homosexuals and homosexuality.  And so, these Catholics insist, anyone questioning Catholic teaching about gay and lesbian people and gay and lesbian issues has to contend with the clear-cut biblical evidence that homosexuality is wrong.

I recently noted one thread at the Commonweal blog site where at least one contributor was pushing this argument very hard.  I've also noted threads at America's "In All Things" blog (e.g., here) in which various contributors are arguing that the biblical evidence against homosexuality and homosexuals is hard.  And exceptionally clear.  

This development--this sudden surge of biblical certitude among some American Catholics when it comes to the issue of homosexuality--is surprising for a number of reasons.  It's surprising first of all because the Catholic way of thinking about theological and moral issues hasn't traditionally given primacy of place to scriptural quotations.  The Catholic approach to scripture has traditionally been to read the bible within the communal context of the people of God as they worship and live their faith in the world, and from the vantage point of tradition.

And so to hear some Catholics arguing like Protestant biblical literalists that theological reflection begins and ends with the scriptures, which bind us absolutely because what they say is literally true and inerrant, is novel.  It's a departure from the tradition--a departure that the current pope appears to have set into motion with regard to gay and lesbian issues with his 1986 document on the pastoral care of homosexual persons, which was widely criticized by theologians and scripture scholars when it was first issued, precisely because it employs scriptural texts in a naive proof-texting way alien to the Catholic tradition (and see this Bilgrimage posting, on the 1986 letter).

Hearing well-educated Catholics of the center spouting a biblical literalism that they do not apply to any issue other than homosexuality is surprising, as well, because even a cursory familiarity with contemporary biblical exegesis ought to have given these Catholics pause to think about their certainty that the bible condemns homosexuality.  It should have done so because it's obvious--and it doesn't require much reflection at all to recognize this--that a concept and term that did not appear until the latter part of the 19th century can't possibly appear in scriptures written many centuries before the 19th century.  In an entirely different cultural context.

And so it's exceptionally surprising to see some well-educated Catholics snatching at scripture passages which, they contend, clearly condemn "homosexuality," when they'd never dream of trying to prove Catholic claims about, say, birth control or nuclear war by snatching at similar scripture passages condemning contraception or nuclear war.  Because they know full well that the biblical authors could never have spoken or even thought about those issues, since they had no language or concepts to do so.

What makes homosexuality a special case, I wonder, re: which even some well-educated Catholics in the U.S. are so willing to suspend critical insight about exegetical accuracy that they'd apply without questioning to any issue other than homosexuality?  Because I've been pursuing that question on a number of blogs of the American Catholic center recently, I'm very happy to read Mark D. Jordan's current essay at Religion Dispatches, noting exactly what I've been noting in these discussions: namely, that the biblical writers can't have condemned homosexuality and homosexuals, when those terms and concepts were totally unknown to those who wrote the scriptures.  And that whatever the authors of the six clobber texts biblical literalists keep trotting out to bash gays meant by those texts, they obviously were not speaking of what we call homosexuality or homosexuals today.

Jordan writes,

There are no sexual orientations in Leviticus. As the Anglican theologian D.S. Bailey first argued more than fifty years ago, there is nothing in the texts of what Christian call the Old and New Testaments that corresponds with modern categories like homosexual or gay. The horrifying prescription of Leviticus 20:13 (and its correlate, 18:22) are not directed against classes of persons, but against acts committed by Israelite males (and males only). Moreover, it’s a matter of lively dispute even among fierce textual literalists exactly which acts are intended.

As he notes, a large number of theologians and exegetes who have worked hard to help us understand what the anti-gay clobber texts actually meant, what they were intended to say in the time and place in which they were crafted, were Jewish and Christian scholars intent on retrieving accurate notions of what the bible says, because they cherish the biblical text.  Not because they want to amend or ignore what it says.

Not because they're gay activists intent on blunting the edge of scriptural truth, as Christians quoting these clobber texts to bash gays insist.  But because they think it's blasphemous to misrepresent the scriptures for political applications like keeping gay and lesbian persons in their places as second-class citizens.

And so why are some Catholics, including well-educated ones, persuaded that the bible condemns homosexuality and homosexuals?  I'd argue that they are so persuaded because of sheer prejudice.  Just as Christians of the past once found the biblical passages supporting slavery and mandating the subordination of people of color to white Euro-Americans, or of women to men, clear.  Transparent.  Obvious.  Because of prejudice.

They say what they say, our prejudice led us to maintain over and over in the past, and only a fool would try to deny what they say.

This is the force driving contemporary attempts to keep on using the bible to bash gays.  And though it's surprising to find some Catholics, including some well-educated ones, buying into the biblical literalism, that surprise is perhaps not so pronounced when we look at the history of some Catholics' support in the past for slavery, segregation, women's subjugation to men--or for anti-semitism or "holy wars" or extermination of witches and heretics.

People--some people--will almost always buy into the presuppositions of the culture in which they live, even when those presuppositions involve suffering for a certain group of their fellow citizens.  Some people will almost always take for granted the rightness of the cultural presuppositions that have shaped them, and will gladly look for religious warrants to uphold those presuppositions.

Until it happens that they or people they love become the object of the prohibitions and the biblical taboos.  Until it happens that they or their family members become the ones clobbered by a sock full of stones, since the bible tells us to stone homosexuals.

Doesn't it?

The graphic shows protesters demonstrating in favor of the recent California court decision to keep the restriction of proposition 8 against same-sex marriage in place until the appeal of prop 8 has run its course.  It's difficult to imagine political protesters arriving at a political rally in the U.S. carrying signs quoting Mark 10:11, Luke 16:18, etc.

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