Homosexuality and the Church Crisis
Few would deny that homosexuality, same sex marriage and gay priests have been front and center issues that exemplify the embittered debates at the center of the crisis in the church since the 1960s to the present day. The “sexual liberation” of the 1960s unleashed a torrent of new groups from feminists to homosexuals to transgendered individuals, who claimed that they were persecuted in the past and that they would no longer tolerate such persecution in the future. All the major churches had up until then viewed homosexuality as a sin expressly condemned by scripture. But as these victim groups began to organize politically and articulate arguments for their full acceptance into the church, many protestant groups began to do so. But traditionalists within these protestant groups found this a complete betrayal of the Christian revelation. The debates soon spread to the Orthodox and Roman Catholic communions and have become acute points of dissension within the church today. Liberals within the church want to claim that homosexuality and other non traditional sexual orientations are not sins at all while traditionalists ask how we can blithely throw out 2000 years of scripture and tradition on these issue just to accommodate sinful people who claim they have been victimized? Aren’t we merely bending to the world’s priorities and abandoning Christ just to be popular in the modern world?
The homosexuality wars in the church are both a symptom and cause of the church crisis in the modern age. Traditionalists claim that not only is there no scriptural foundation for justification of homosexuality (never mind same sex unions), scripture expressly condemns it. So-called progressives within the church on the other hand argue that scripture demands interpretation and that history is the struggle of oppressed minorities to come into full communion with the rest of the society and church. In short traditionalists argue that redefining homosexuality as NOT a sin would be a corruption of church doctrine and tradition while progressives argue that ending persecution of homosexuals by redefining homosexuality as NOT a sin represents a valid development of Christ’s teaching of full inclusion of the “other” into the church.
Who is right? How does a conscientious Christian think through these complex issues. The Catholic magisterium would say “listen to us—we decide—the laity follow and obey period.” But even the magisterium needs to consult with experts, the laity and the rest of the church on matters dividing the faithful. How does one decide what is valid in terms of development of doctrine versus what is a corruption of church doctrine?
Protestants by and large argue that valid development only occurs when the new doctrine represents a clear logical unfolding or implication of something present in scripture. Despite this seemingly clear criterion for valid development recall that it has been Protestant churches who have taken the first steps in welcoming homosexuals, same sex unions, female clergy and so on.
But is that criterion an adequate or valid one to use in assessing whether a new development in church doctrine is valid or not? Take the case of the development of the trinitarian doctrine formulated in the first several ecumenical councils in the first few centuries of the Church. While the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are certainly mentioned in the New testament gospels there is no reason to suppose that they compose a trinity of 3 persons and one God. More parsimonious interpretations of those mentions would simply claim that the terms merely refer to differing modes human experience of the one God or differing ways of expressing one experience and so on. The strict monotheism of first century Jews would have militated against arguing for Trinitarian positions on the Godhead. That is one reason why it took centuries for the Trinitarian interpretation to win out over all the other more common sensical interpretations of these mentions of the names of the god experiences in the New Testament.
Clearly, then one cannot arrive at the doctrine of the Trinity by merely reading the gospels and following out logical implications of whatever it is you read there. The logical implications of gospel texts are literally endless. Constraints are needed in order to limit endless and destructive interpretations of these texts.
Where do these constraints come from? The orthodox and Catholic communions say they come from tradition which includes the magisterium and debates at Church councils. Tradition also includes input from the laity in the form of popular forms of piety as well as social, cultural and political influences.
While the addition of tradition to help gauge genuine doctrinal development helps it does not help very much. Tradition too can be interpreted in endless ways and the influence of popular and social forces are often inimical to the Christian revelation.
In the 19th century several theologians began to formulate tests for assessing whether a given doctrinal development was valid or a corruption of church doctrine. In particular Cardinal Newman argued that “There is no corruption if it (a doctrinal development) retains one and the same type (when compared to the earlier doctrine that serves as the origin of the new doctrine), the same principles, the same organization; if its beginnings anticipate its subsequent phases, and its later phenomena protect and subserve its earlier; if it has a power of assimilation and revival, and a vigorous action from first to last.” (Newman, 1845, Essay on development of Christin Doctrine, p171)
If we use Newman’s tests to assess whether the new doctrine “homosexuality is not a sin” is a corruption OR a valid development of Christina doctrine I think we just get more muddled. All of Newman’s tests depend on the original reference doctrine one starts with. If we start with literal reading of scripture then the original reference doctrine would have to be homosexuality is a sin. The “development homosexuality is NOT a sin” then does NOT retain one and the same type, organization and so as the original doctrine nor does it protect and subserve the original doctrine. In fact the new doctrine literally overturns the older one.
If on the other hand we start with a different base doctrine perhaps the doctrine of “Love your neighbor as yourself” then Newman’s tests on “homosexuality is not a sin” are no so clear. If I place myself in the shoes of my homosexual neighbor he has undergone severe affliction and condemnation simply because of his sexual orientation. This neighbor has never acted on his sexual orientation. Instead he became a catholic priest and is universally acclaimed a saint by those that know him. Except for his sexual orientation and his views that homosexuality is not a sin he is an exemplary man of the Church. He has single handedly kept alive the Latin mass at his parish, has served as hospital chaplain for decades, and has written very militant catholic apologetics. He opposes same sex marriage nut not same sex unions. He opposes marriage for priests and female ordination. He was decorated for bravery when a young combat solider in the Viet Nam war and has since then stridently supported all branches of the US military. He describes himself as a traditional catholic and a political conservative.
Extrapolating from the Christian doctrine of Love thy neighbor as oneself…does this man’s views that same sex attraction and unions (not marriage) are not sinful pass Newman tests? Including same sex attraction and unions in the family of acceptable practices in the church appears to be congruent with the original doctrine and certainly preserves and protects that original doctrine and so forth. But again this just proves that Newman’s tests depend entirely on the reference or base doctrine you use as the standard from which develop occurs.
We need something better.
One possibility that the modern age gives us is scientific input. Perhaps we can consult the science on homosexuality in order to assess whether or not it is a sin.
There are lots of papers on homosexuality because male homosexuality in particular is a puzzle. Given that male homosexuals rarely have many (or indeed any) children, the phenomena of homosexuality should disappear from the gene pool. But obviously homosexuality has not disappeared. Scientists therefore infer that it must be conferring some kind of genetic advantage to relatives of the homosexuals. The best evidence to date that that is indeed the case comes from studies of Camperio Ciani’s group in Italy. They (see Francesca Iemmola Æ Andrea Camperio Ciani Arch Sex Behav (2009) 38:393–399 DOI 10.1007/s10508-008-9381-6 New Evidence of Genetic Factors Inﬂuencing Sexual Orientation in Men: Female Fecundity Increase in the Maternal Line) have demonstrated via several studies of the genetics of families with homosexual members that the average fecundity of the female relatives in the maternal BUT NOT THE PATERNAL line of homosexuals, was increased relative to families without homosexual members. In other words having a homosexual in the family significantly increases the chances that women vs the men in the extended family will have large numbers of offspring! Homosexuality might therefore be seen as one more strategy in the eternal battle of the sexes to immortalize their respective genetic legacies.
Even if these studies and data are replicated and later confirmed do they help us decide whether or not homosexuality is a sin? Obviously not. The data certainly are interesting but they are silent on the central question which of course is a theological question.
So where does this leave us? Biblical literalism cannot decide on whether homosexuality is a sin. Catholic and Orthodox traditionalism can’t do the job either. Nor can Newman’s tests or recent science tell us whether homosexuality is a sin.
I suggest that to intelligently debate the issue of homosexuality we need to start with an agreed upon definition of sin. That will be the subject of another post.