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Saturday, November 17, 2012

Gay marriage

"Gay marriage" is the most recent subject of controversy in the churches, including the Catholic Church. The more liberal Christian groups, such as the Presbyterians and the United Church of Christ, are open to allowing gay couples to claim the status of being married. The more conservative ones, including the Southern Baptists and the Roman Catholics, reject such openness.

Whether or not we can view gays as entitled to the status of being married, the crucial issue comes down to the morality of homosexual behavior. The morality of homosexual behavior runs head on into one of the clearest statements in scripture. The statement is not, as are some moral statements, limited to the Old Testament, so that Christians might claim that it has been superseded by Christ's new law. It is found at the very beginning of one of the most solidly attested New Testament documents, St. Paul's letter to the Romans. Here is what Paul says, describing the state of humanity without Christ:

           ...Therefore, God handed them [the pagans] over to impurity through the lusts of their hearts for the
           mutual degradation of their bodies. . . .God handed them over to degrading passions. Their females
           exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the males likewise gave up natural relations with
           females and burned with lust for one another. Males did shameful things with males and thus received
           in their own persons the due penalty for their perversity. . ." (Romans 1:24-27, New American Bible

It would be hard to imagine a clearer statement of the immorality of homosexual behavior.

Yet something is happening in our societies that calls for a re-examination of this text. As they have personal contact with openly gay people, often in their own families, more and more people are coming to accept the idea that a homosexual orientation is not the result of choice but of biology. If that is so, why is it not preferable for two men or two women to live in a committed relationship with one another than for them to live without such commitment? If it is preferable for them to live that way, can the sexual behavior that will result from such living be wrong? If it is not wrong, what do we do with Paul's letter to the Romans?

The answer to that question is that we do what we have done throughout Christian history when confronted with scriptural texts that seem to go against commonly accepted wisdom. We interpret the texts as products of a specific cultural environment, not binding for all times and places. Such an interpretation of homosexuality has been done. See Daniel Helminiak's book What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality.

We have in Christian history two other examples of how new understandings have caused the church to reject apparently clear scriptural texts: usury and slavery. Until the 1600s, Christian churches regarded the charging of interest on loans as immoral. (See John T. Noonan's book, Usury.) Until the 1800s Christian churches also existed comfortably with the idea that slavery is acceptable. There are clear scriptural texts which can be used to defend both positions. Today both positions are rejected, by Catholic as well as by most Protestant groups. Does homosexuality fall into the same category?

I think it does, but it will be a hard sell. Paul's statement is just too clear and too dramatic. Catholics are not biblical literalists, but this particular text has language that snares Catholics on another term dear to traditionalists: "natural." The females exchanged "natural" relations for "unnatural." If we accept Thomas Aquinas's grounding of morality in natural law, it will be much harder for us to interpret away this text as the product of a particular culture. Not only does the text condemn homosexual behavior, but it seems to legitimate natural law as a grounding for all morality.

I have argued elsewhere for the replacement of natural law as a basis of morality with a criterion of intimacy or love: passionate, respectful, vulnerable, and faithful involvement of one human being with another and with God. My argument here is that the "faithful" are using such a criterion and coming up with a different judgment of the morality of homosexuality than our traditional judgment. The sooner we get away from trying to use natural law as the grounding for our moral thinking, the sooner we will be able to engage our own culture in ways that both challenge its weaknesses and affirm its strengths. As it is now, the official Church is no more able to challenge the culture than are the Old Order Amish.