Monday, March 19, 2012

Valuable Discussions of Christian Sexual Ethics: Geoffrey Robinson and Jeffrey John

Two good recent discussions I'd like to recommend to readers, both about the teaching of Christian churches re: human sexuality:

At National Catholic Reporter, Jerry Filteau reports on Australian bishop Geoffrey Robinson's presentation to New Ways Ministry's Seventh National Symposium on Catholicism and Homosexuality.  As Filteau notes, the complete text of Bishop Robinson's lecture, which is entitled "Sexual Relationships: Where Does Our Morality Come From?," is at his website (pdf file).

Robinson argues that any change in Catholic teaching about (and approach to) homosexuality is contingent on the willingness of the magisterium to revise its sexual ethics in general, since they continue to be based on a biologistic understanding of natural law which insists that "every single sexual act must be both unitive and procreative."  As Robinson also notes, this understanding leads Catholic teaching to the conclusion that all sexual acts which fail to observe the procreative norm are "grave matter," that they're ipso facto gravely sinful--though today the church is vocal in proclaiming this teaching only when those subject to it are gay and lesbian: 

For centuries the church has taught that every sexual sin is a mortal sin. The teaching may not be proclaimed as loudly today as much as before, but it was proclaimed by many popes, it has never been retracted and it has affected countless people.

A corollary of this magisterial teaching, Robinson maintains, is that the God dictating and enforcing such teachings is "incredibly angry," willing to condemn anyone who infringes this moral teaching in even a single instance to hell for eternity.  Robinson states flatly that he finds it impossible to accept such an image of God.

In Robinson's view, returning to the scriptures and Jesus's teaching as the foundation of sexual ethics might permit us to view human sexuality in a far more nuanced way than does the biologistic natural-law approach preferred by the magisterium at present.  (Though Filteau doesn't say this in his summary of Robinson's presentation, it seems important, in my view, to note that Jesus is absolutely silent about homosexuality, though many of his followers are entirely preoccupied right now by the need to condemn gay and lesbian persons in the name of Jesus.  But what Jesus does have much to say about, and repeatedly, is love, justice, and mercy . . . .)

In this regard, I'm intrigued by the responses to Filteau's summary of Robinson.  Over and over, those commenting on the presentation at NCR's website slam Robinson for failing to be faithful to the bible, to the scriptures.  One of the dominant motifs of these critics who profess to be Catholics is that the bible is completely unambiguous about homosexuality (it's sinful), and if we permit folks to ask critical questions about how the bible is to be interpreted and applied, we might as well take our Christian credentials down from the wall and shut them in a closet, since everything hinges on the bible's absolute and unambiguous truth.

One anonymous respondent, who says that the scriptures are "crystal clear" about homosexuality, then--and strangely--quotes Jesus not on the topic of homosexuality (since how could he/she quote a non-existent scripture verse citing Jesus on this topic), but on gouging out our eye if it causes us to stumble.  And then he/she goes on to quote the Leviticus verse about a man lying with another man as with a woman, nothing that he/she is citing the King James translation of the bible.

Which demonstrates, I conclude, the serious extent to which the current crop of bishops in the American Catholic church have led American Catholicism into a very unfortunate cul de sac by their religio-politcial alliance with right-wing Christian fundamentalism.  Since these remarks are far more evangelical-fundamentalist in their outlook on the scriptures than authentically Catholic.

The second discussion to which I want to direct readers' attention is a posting at Terry Weldon's Queering the Church website summarizing Dean Jeffrey John's recent reflections on the theological basis of marriage equality.  As Terry notes, John's reflections in their entirety are in the Times (London), and therefore behind a paywall.  The Thinking Anglicans website has, however, reproduced them, and Terry links to (and uses) that source.

It would be instructive for the fundamentalist Catholics responding to Bishop Robinson's lecture to read what John has to say about the scriptures as the basis for anti-homosexual teaching (though I very seriously doubt that they will do so).  For instance, there's the following: 

It is often assumed that scripture rules out same-sex monogamy, but that is not true unless you read scripture in a selectively literal way. In the few places where homosexuality is mentioned in the New Testament the texts show no awareness that some people are homosexual in orientation. When St Paul condemns people who ‘exchange’ heterosexual intercourse for homosexual, he is assuming that this is a perverse choice on the part of naturally heterosexual people who are simply choosing the alternative out of an excess of lust. What is being criticized in these passages is the kind of homosexual activity that was most visible in the Hellenistic society around him – promiscuity, prostitution and paedophilia. The case of two responsible, adult, homosexual Christians wishing to commit to each other in love for life is simply never envisaged. 
It is also important to notice that those who choose to interpret the apparently anti-gay passages in Paul literally are usually much less literal when it comes to what Paul has to say about the place of women, or re-marriage, or slavery.

And then there's his fine and truthful observation that the opposition of the church (in this case, the Church of England, but the point applies to many other churches as well) to marriage equality is "patently unprincipled," when the church is willing to celebrate sacramentally second and even third marriages of opposite-sex couples who never darken church doors except to marry.  And when it freely marries heterosexual couples who cannot procreate.  And when it demands a "conscience exemption" to discriminate in its own practices and institutions, while preaching norms of justice to the world at large.

As John observes, all of this is deeply repellent not merely to gay folks, but also "to people of goodwill who instinctively expect the Church to uphold justice and truth."  And in this way, what he has to say ties, in my mind, to what Diana Butler Bass tells Candace Chellew-Hodge in the article to which I linked earlier today, about the need for churches to begin embodying in their institutional structures and practices the radical hospitality they proclaim as their core value--if they expect anyone to continue listening to anything at all they have to say.

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