Joseph Ratzinger and Rowan Williams: Contraception and Same-Sex Marriage

Last week, I linked to a post by Abigail Rine at First Things, which argued that Evangelicals tended to trivialize the importance of procreation in their theology of marriage, and that by doing so, they made it more difficult to articulate a coherent objection to same-sex marriage. This post follows up and expands on that discussion.

The Ratzinger Report

In 1985, Cardinal Ratzinger (now the Pope Emeritus) gave a book-length interview to the Italian journalist Vittorio Messori (published as The Ratzinger Report). The interview was wide-ranging, covering most of the challenges facing the Church. Naturally, Messori asked Ratzinger to talk about the challenges facing the Church’s sexual ethic.

In 1989, Rowan Williams, a prominent Anglican theologian who would later become Archbishop of Canterbury, gave a lecture to the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement that was later published as “The Body’s Grace,” arguing for the legitimacy of gay and lesbian relationships.

Ratzinger and Williams are among the best theologians of their generation, and each went on to lead his respective communion. As is to be expected, they hold differing views on contraception: Williams follows Anglican teaching in believing married couples can use contraceptives, while Ratzinger defends the Catholic teaching that they cannot.

What is interesting, however, is the similarity of their views about how the logic of contraception shapes our theological response to homosexuality: both believe that if you accept the legitimacy of contraception in marriage, it is difficult to argue against same-sex sexual intimacy.

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First Things – What Is Marriage to Evangelical Millennials?

Wedding RingsIn a recent post at First Things, Abigail Rine, an assistant professor of English at George Fox University, writes about her experience trying to teach “What is Marriage” [pdf]. Her Evangelical students not only didn’t like the conclusion, but had difficulty even understanding the authors’ argument. Yet Rine does not place the blame primarily on them, but on their pastors and parents:

While I listened to my students lambast the article, it struck me that, on one level, they were right: marriage isn’t in danger of being redefined; the redefinition began decades ago, in the wake of the sexual revolution. Once the link between sexuality and procreation was severed in our cultural imagination, marriage morphed into an exclusive romantic bond that has only an arbitrary relationship to reproduction. It is this redefinition, arguably, that has given rise to the same-sex marriage movement, rather than the other way around, and as the broader culture has shifted on this issue, so have many young evangelicals.

From time to time, my friend Justin Lee—founder of the Gay Christian Network—and I give joint presentations about how Christians can disagree charitably and civilly about homosexuality. Justin and I both grew up Southern Baptist, and we have a lot in common. We also disagree, and have disagreed for nearly two decades now, about whether same-sex sexual activity is ever compatible with God’s will.

Sometimes, someone who has seen our presentation will ask me why I think Justin “changed his theology” to support gay marriage, while I stuck with conservative theology. This is a fairly natural question, and since Justin and I have been friends for so long, I would be as likely to have insight into that as anyone.

However, I think the question actually rests on a substantial misunderstanding. I did not hold onto the theology of marriage I learned in Southern Baptist Churches growing up. If I had, I would support same-sex marriage. When I listen to Justin’s presentations, what I hear in his arguments for same-sex marriage is simply the logical outworking of the theology of marriage we both grew up with.

Justin has to explain away a few verses that deal with homosexuality. But his efforts to explain away do not surprise me. I grew up among pastors who didn’t even bother to explain away the New Testament teaching on divorce as they cheerfully blessed second, third, and even fourth marriages (and yes, I had the misfortune of attending Rev. Ken Hutcherson’s church for a time). However, the connection between marriage and procreation—which is the most important basis for distinguishing between same-sex and opposite-sex marriages—was rejected if not mocked by Evangelicals who regarded the Catholic teaching on contraception entirely backward.

In the most obvious sense, Justin is more faithful to his Evangelical upbringing than I am. I hold a traditional view on same-sex marriage because I rejected the theology of marriage I grew up with, and came to embrace the theology of marriage that used to be defended by Protestants and is still (at least officially) defended by the Catholic Church. That theology has, however, largely disappeared from the daily practice of American Christians, Catholic or Protestant.

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A Pentecost Meditation

This coming Sunday is the Day of Pentecost (for those of us in Western traditions), and it has struck me powerfully in recent years that we don’t really have a name for the time between Ascension Day and Pentecost.

The collect for the Seventh Sunday of Easter from the Book of Common Prayer bridges the gap between those saving events by connecting Jesus’ ascension with the Spirit’s outpouring: “O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us and exalt us to that place where our Saviour Christ has gone before; who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen.” Still, even in that prayer itself (whose precursor, incidentally, the Venerable Bede is said to have prayed on his deathbed), you can hear how the time between Ascension Day and Pentecost is one of those liminal periods in the church’s year, like Holy Saturday, when we’re reminded of the fact that a basic task of God’s people is simply to wait. Jesus is bodily absent from his followers at this point, having ascended into heaven, and yet the Spirit has not yet been given. “And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father…” (Acts 1:4).

Wait.

And the Spirit himself, after he has been poured out on the day of Pentecost, becomes a sign of a different kind of waiting but one that is still, nonetheless, waiting. His presence doesn’t so much “make up” for the absence of Jesus as insure that Jesus and his followers will one day be reunited. The Spirit acts as a kind of engagement ring, a pledge and foretaste of the still-future consummation of the Lamb’s wedding feast. The Spirit, St. Paul says, “is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it” (Ephesians 1:14). So the Spirit, in a sense, enables us to continue living in the liminal space in between Jesus’ first and second comings, an in-between time that was felt acutely after Jesus left and before the Spirit descended in tongues of fire in that upper room in Jerusalem.

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A Letter To Myself, On the Night of My Suicide

Garrett ThomasGarrett Thomas is from the Heartland and went to college in the Deep South. He is Southern Baptist and enjoys discussing friendship, family, and ethics from a conservative evangelical perspective. Follow his blog: The Night Is Nearly Over / The Day Is Almost Here. Follow him on Twitter @AlexiusIV.

Note to Readers: This came from quite a dark time in my life. But even in the dark, God works, and He is good, so good. May we never assume that everyone is always doing okay. Let’s ask one another and get in each other’s lives. The church needs to be a place of vulnerability and of honesty, where people are directed toward the hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Because, no one should ever die by their own hand.

“If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.” (Psalm 139:8-12 ESV)

Dear Self,

I’m writing this letter to you. Yes, you. You there, laying on your bed, distraught, lonely, and weary. This is coming from you, your future self. As you can imagine, if you’re receiving a letter from me, your plan didn’t work out like you thought it was going to.

It’s dark out, somewhere around 2AM. The stars are out tonight without a cloud to be seen. The moon is giving her pale glow. Everyone has gone to bed, wanting nothing more than to have a long night’s sleep. They don’t know what you’re thinking about right now; they don’t know what’s swirling through your mind. But I do. I know what you’re thinking; after all, I am you. Right now, as it’s been for so long, you’re weary.

You’re about 18, but you feel as if you’ve lived an entire lifetime’s worth of stress, disappointment, and sadness. You feel as if you’ve let everyone in your life down, even though you don’t know why. You feel as though you’ve always been the black sheep. You feel as if you’re all alone in this tough world with no one to talk to and no one who would listen. Your struggles are so deep, and you feel your brokenness so intently that you don’t even have the faintest idea that anyone might actually care for, or about you. You’ve convinced yourself that if the people in your life were to wake up tomorrow, that no one would miss you. That no one would grieve, or at least not for very long. They’d get over it quickly and move on, showing that you just weren’t that big of a deal to anyone.

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Friendship in the Valley of the Shadow

Via David Mills, here is a remarkable essay that touches on tons of themes we’ve covered over the past few years on this blog. The author is Matthew Teague, and the title of the Esquire magazine piece is simply “The Friend.”

When Teague’s wife Nicole was diagnosed, at age 34, with ovarian cancer that had metastasized to her stomach, the couple’s friend Dane Faucheux left his hometown, his apartment, his own friends, and his girlfriend to move in with them and help see them through the nightmare.

There is so much to appreciate in this raw, unsparing piece, but what stood out to me most were the places where the author reflects on the sheer mystery of why and how someone who’s made no vows, has no blood ties, and has nothing material to gain from the relationship decides to commit to it nevertheless. “I had married into this situation,” Teague writes, “but how had [Dane] gotten here? Love is not a big-enough word.”

Although Teague’s piece is a meditation on the death of his wife Nicole, not Dane his friend, this essay may well be a prime instance of what Eve Tushnet has called “the death-haunted art of friendship.” Teague is paying tribute to Dane in the awful wake of cancer, and what he’s describing is an enormous instance of self-sacrifice. “It may help,” Eve says, when we are trying to understand friendship specifically as a vocation, “to ponder the humiliations of caring for vomiting, querulous, or bedridden friends, and the humiliation of being cared for by a friend when we’re in that state ourselves, as part of the cross borne by those whose love is poured out in friendship.”

If that’s what you want to ponder, I would really urge you to read Teague’s essay. It is brutal and beautiful.

A New Project on the Christian Theology of Marriage

Some readers here may be interested to know about a theological project I’ve been involved with over the last several months—a project that touches on many themes that are near and dear to this blog.

Beginning last summer, a group of clergy and lay people, most of whom belong to The Episcopal Church (TEC), began working on a series of essays to try to articulate some of the key aspects of a Christian theology of marriage. We’re calling our project Fully Alive. As the brief description on our website says,

There is an important conversation going on about marriage today. It is happening in society. It is also happening in the Church. People are asking questions about what marriage is and what it is for. Fully Alive is a project by a group of Christians who are seeking to answer these questions deeply and prayerfully, while also considering some even bigger questions that lurk in the background of our conversation on marriage. What does it mean to be a human being? What does it mean to be a woman or a man? Is it possible for people who come to radically different conclusions about these things to live together with integrity in one society? What about in one church?

In the weeks and months ahead, Fully Alive will be publishing essays and creating resources. This website will have all the latest information. Fully Alive is sponsored by the Communion Partner Bishops.

The background to our work is as follows. At the 2012 TEC General Convention, a Task Force on the study of marriage was created to report back to the next convention—which is happening this year, in June, in Salt Lake City—on the history and theology of marriage. The Task Force’s report was released in February. At General Convention next month, the Task Force will propose Resolution A050 which would change the church’s canons to allow for same-sex couples to marry alongside opposite-sex couples.

Today, we at Fully Alive are responding to the Task Force’s report with an article of our own in the Anglican Theological Review. I played a part in crafting this article, and I wanted to alert readers here to it. Our essay tries to lay out a different picture of what marriage is and what it is for than the picture the TEC Task Force has offered.

If you’re so inclined, please do help us spread the word. We’d like to see our essay widely read and discussed and—please God—used next month to shed some light on the debates at General Convention. More than that, we’d like to see what we’ve written benefit the church catholic, as we all together seek God’s will for the meaning and practice of Christian marriage.

Gay, but (Not) Ashamed

In the court of public opinion, nothing is more perversely pleasurable than exposing a hypocrite. Celebrities, politicians, or those least favorite cousins who live in the next town over. It doesn’t matter. People enjoy a hard fall from grace, no matter who it is.

Shame-Article-Image

In arenas like politics, few seem to care about the risk of a character-razing. They probably expect it at some point in their career. When someone gets burned, it’s the cost of doing business. They know that with the right blend of charisma and contrition, almost anyone can return to public service. The risks don’t outweigh the benefits.

But that’s not the case for many of us who find our lives at the center of the cultural spotlight. For those who are gay and Christian—who are attempting to live out a traditional sexual ethic—the threats of becoming another headlining hypocrite are enough to keep us from opening up about our own stories.

We know that our sins aren’t private like they were just a decade ago. We worry that, with enough effort, someone might find the eternal debris of our weakest moments.

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Clarification on Our Mixed Orientation Marriage

Back in January, I wrote a post about my mixed-orientation marriage with Anna. Since then, I’ve mulled over things I wish I’d said a little better, and things I would have liked to include but didn’t.

The reactions to the post were varied. Many people in our lives voiced their support and gratitude that we’re sharing our journey with them. Others were confused and, quite frankly, turned off by it all. Some saw it as a situation to be fixed, a broken “half-marriage” if you will. Those who do life with us day to day, and those who know us well, are fully aware that this isn’t the case. But with the limited picture painted for them in a few thousand words, I can understand how many see a much more dire circumstance than what actually is.

The fact of the matter is that it is impossible, in the scope of a blog post, to capture all that a marital (or any significant) relationship is. And just as it is important to consider authorial intent when reading divinely inspired scripture, so too must a reader consider the purpose of any writer when making inferences and forming impressions and opinions based on that writer’s words. In fact, I imagine that if we all, myself included, got a little better at that, we’d get a lot further in dialogue with those whose beliefs and experiences run so counter to our own.

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Sherif Girgis: Called to Greatness

Sherif GirgisLast week, I was invited to join Sherif Girgis (coauthor of What Is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense) to speak about marriage at the University of Notre Dame. This week, Ethika Politika has posted a pair of short essays on how American Catholics should move forward in their witness to the truths of marriage and family.

I’m working on a post that expands on my essay. In the meantime, I think Spiritual Friendship readers will find Sherif’s thoughts on vocation helpful.

Why are we losing the culture wars on family? One simple reason is that for years, young people have been told that our (natural-law, Judeo-Christian) vision of marriage is cruel.

That charge has been internalized. Many LGBT people my age don’t call us cruel for political advantage, or out of trained melodrama; they really believe it. Their belief doesn’t make our message cruel, but it makes their experience one of real pain. And pastorally, that’s what counts.

One thing we can do for these brothers and sisters of ours is to remind them of what they can do for us—of what we need them to do. For while fear of loneliness may give many LGBT youth pause about our ethic (a topic for another essay), I suspect a second common fear is of ennui or despair: the dread of being Christians “consigned” to singleness, with nothing positivedemanded of them, by the Church or the wider culture.

That is, behind the LGBT cry for dignity may be the sense that social standing comes from being needed by the community, which comes from having publicly recognized responsibilities—which nowadays only marriage seems to offer.

Read the whole essay at Ethika Politika.

Detachment in Friendship

A while ago I was talking to my spiritual director about some anxieties I was feeling in one of my friendships. This was a close friendship which had been tested by time (and by my own idiocy) but I was still having a hard time trusting that it would endure, and coping with the changes that were occurring in the friendship.

My spiritual director nodded and said, “It sounds like you’re ‘attached’ to this friend, in the sense that you’re relying on the friendship for your well-being. This isn’t a Christian approach. Only Jesus can always be there for you in the way that you need; what you want right now is understandable, but your friend really can’t give it to you. You need to be willing to let go. Maybe the friendship will fade away. Maybe you need to invest more in your other friendships, as this one changes. Whatever happens to you, you will be loved and sheltered–but by God, not by the specific other people you’ve picked out.”

That was tough to hear, as you can imagine. But I came to see that my priest was basically right. I did start to invest more in other friendships–and also give thanks for them more often. For the first time, I realized that when Jesus says we must hate mother and father, wife and children, and even our own lives, to follow Him, He is talking to me; I must be ready to live without the relationships which mean the most to me.

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