Last year, Joseph Bottum wrote an essay for Commonweal entitled, “The Things We Share: A Catholic’s Case for Same-Sex Marriage.” With a title like this coming from the pen of a former editor of First Things, Bottum’s article was almost certain to generate voluminous commentary. And it did.
One year later, the commentary continues, with the most recent issue of Commonweal including responses to Bottum’s thesis from two high-profile Catholic journalists. Ross Douthat—a columnist for the New York Times—criticizes Bottum for going too far. Douthat argues that if Catholics “are to continue contending in the American public square,” then “there is no honest way for the church to avoid stating its position on what the legal definition of marriage ought to be.” Jamie L. Manson, on the other hand, thinks that Bottum does not go far enough. She argues that gay couples should not only be allowed by the secular government to contract civil marriages, but that Catholic teaching should change to recognize “the potential of a gay or lesbian couple to fulfill the requirements of sacramental marriage.”
It probably goes without saying that the conversation on faith and sexual orientation is a hot topic at many Christian colleges these days. A growing number of students are talking about their own experiences as sexual minorities, and many people both gay and straight are asking questions about the doctrines they grew up with. Particularly in the evangelical world, I’ve seen some encouraging trends coming from the leadership of some of these colleges, but also some trends that cause me great concern. Campus leaders should not try to hide or suppress conversation about sexual ethics and sexual minorities, but instead should seek to help the campus think through these things openly.
At best, some Christian colleges facilitate conversations on sexual identity openly and show that, as one Calvin College staff member put it, “we love our students.” At worst, some colleges try to hide these conversations as much as possible, sometimes to the extent of practicing overt censorship. I will not name individual institutions, but I’m aware of at least two cases in which Christian colleges have exerted power to prevent students from accessing unofficial student publications that include stories of sexual minority students. In those cases, some of the students did advocate for changing Christian teaching, but a primary purpose of the publications was for students to tell their stories. I also know of at least one Christian college at which the administration has prevented the student newspaper from publishing articles about sexual minority students online. I know for a fact that several of those articles did not advocate such a change in teaching. Any of this censorship not only throws sexual minority students, faculty, and staff under the bus, but it actually pushes people away from the traditional sexual ethic.
Botticelli: St. Augustine
Christian faith is not the conclusion of an argument: it begins in some sense or other in a personal encounter with God. Some people experience this encounter in a dramatic way, for others, it is much gentler and quieter. But we believe because we believe God, who, in some way, speaks to us. This belief is more a matter of personal trust in the God who loves us and has revealed himself to us than it is the conclusion of an intellectual investigation.
We are created in God’s image, and God is love. Our faith is thus best nurtured by experiencing God’s love through prayer, worship, and the sacraments, by acts of service or contemplation that we do out of love for God, and by Christian community, where we love others and experience and are nurtured in love.
God also knows and understands everything, and our desire to understand Him and the world He has created is part of His image in us. Although belief and trust are primarily personal responses to God’s love for us, we also want to understand what we believe and who we trust. There are, moreover, parts of Christian teaching—like the Trinity, the Incarnation, or the virgin birth—that are difficult to understand. And Christian faith also gives rise to difficult questions: for example, if God is all knowing and all powerful, and He desires what is good for everyone, why is there so much evil and suffering in the world?
I’ve been working behind the scenes to help organize a small gathering (about which I hope to say more in due course) on the topic of Christianity and homosexuality, and I had an insight today, as I was working on this, that I’m not sure I’ve had before.
I was discussing with the other event coordinators the title for the gathering. We’re pretty sure it’s going to be “Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction: Finding Paths to Ministry.”
But just as the flyers are about to go to press, someone pointed out an ambiguity in the title. It’s not clear whether “ministry” in the subtitle refers to the ministry Christians have towards and for gay Christians or the ministry gay Christians themselves have in the body of Christ (and the world at large). Should we, this person wondered, alter the title so as to remove the ambiguity or should we leave it as it is?
I ended up making the case for leaving it as it is and hoping that the ambiguity will be provocative and productive. But as I stepped away from the email thread and thought about it more, I wondered if maybe this exchange between the other organizers and me was a microcosm of some of the larger patterns of miscommunication and misunderstanding that we in the Christian world have around the issue of homosexuality. Is our goal to try to find a way to help a certain subset of broken, struggling Christians find healing and hope? Or, even if something so limited isn’t our goal, do we often talk in such a way that people might have that impression? Or, alternatively, is our goal to try to encourage gay people in our churches to recognize the way their (our!) “particular mix of the Fall” (as Francis Schaeffer called it) and their equally particular experiences of grace and redemption may have uniquely positioned them to bring gifts to the church and the world that no one else has?
My own beliefs about Biblical teaching on homosexual acts are relatively simple: the Jewish Law prohibited any sex between two men (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13). Paul renewed that prohibition in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10) and taught that such acts are “contrary to nature” (Romans 1:27). The Church has always regarded homosexual acts as serious sins. Thus, for me, the primary questions are, “How do I obey this teaching?” or “How does this teaching harmonize with the importance of loving and being loved in the Gospel teaching more broadly?”
However, the range of possible controversies behind those relatively simple beliefs is vast. I wrote a little about this in my recent post on Pederasty and Arsenokoitai, and @ladenheart, a friend who knows the classics much better than I do, has written a thoughtful response. His post is rich, well worth reading, and raises too many questions for me to address here. I will make at least a partial response, however. Near the end of his post, he offers the following tentative conclusion:
My general sense – although I do admit, it is a work in progress – is that what the Judeo-Christian tradition is condemning when it speaks negatively of sexual acts between men are, demonstrable in most cases, acts that are based on exploitation, unequal status, or excess.
I agree with him that, if we really want to understand what the Apostle Paul and the subsequent Christian tradition were trying to say, we need to understand the cultural context that he was writing in. However, we also need to understand the mind with which he judged that world. My concern with @ladenheart’s post—and I raise this as a concern needing further discussion, not a conclusion—is that he focuses heavily on the historical details of ancient paganism, but then judges what he finds with largely 21st century eyes.
One argument that is sometimes offered by Christian advocates of same-sex marriage is that the Apostle Paul was not thinking of loving, monogamous adult relationships, and only intended to condemn Greco/Roman pederasty. I’ve been spending a lot of time reading ancient Greek texts on sexuality recently, and that has gotten me thinking in general about Paul’s historical context and, more specifically, about this argument.
First, it’s important to acknowledge that relationships between adult men and adolescent boys or young men were the most commonly attested same-sex relationships in the ancient world. There are exceptions—Plato’s Symposium discusses committed, lifelong same-sex relationships—but this is by far the most common kind of relationship. We should therefore acknowledge that the Apostle Paul was likely most familiar with this kind of same-sex sexual activity.
It’s worth observing, however, that precisely because this form of same-sex sexuality was so common, there was standard terminology in Greek for talking about these relationships—the older man was the erastes (lover) and the younger man the eromenos (beloved). If these relationships were Paul’s target, it would have been reasonable for him to use these standard Greek terms.
Instead, he used an apparently novel term, arsenokoitai, which either he invented or which he took from Helenistic Judaism. The most logical derivation of this new word is from the Septuagint translation of Leviticus 18:22, which says that you shall not lie with (koiten) a man (arsenos) as with a woman.
I always like seeing this emphasis in discussions of hospitality:
After seven years of marriage, my wife and I have welcomed numerous friends into our home. Once we decide to host friends for an evening, we usually kick into get ready mode, a fast and furious sprint in the days and hours before our friends arrive. We divide and conquer the to-do list: select a menu, complete grocery shopping, mow the lawn, sweep the floors, run the vacuum, clean the playroom, wipe the bird crap off our lawn chairs (we have lots of trees), set the table, clean the playroom (again), and somehow, someway, pray all that happens before the doorbell rings.
Over the years, that to-do list has prepared us for hosting company, but it has also prevented us from welcoming friends in our home. Unwritten Southern rules of offering hospitality with excellence have affected how often we invite people in our home. ‘We should have the __________s over sometime.’ And then we delay or postpone the invitation. Why? Because the to-do list is always there, the gap between our day-to-day home and the presentable, acceptable-for-hospitality version of our home.
But over the past several months, Emily and I are learning to lay those conventions aside. Why? Because inviting friends into our lives when we are only ‘excellent’ isn’t friendship. Sure, there are still times we like to go all out, spruce up the house and cook a huge, Jamie Oliver style meal. It can be fun and it’s enjoyable to do things well. But that standard of excellence is rarely possible with two children under the age of 3. Friendship isn’t about always being ‘excellent’ with one another. Friendship is about preparing a space for authentic conversation. And sometimes authenticity happens when everything is a bit scruffy.
A few weeks ago a friend of mine posted a beautiful video on Facebook about a couple that have been married for 50 years. The wife has Alzheimer’s Disease, so the husband also needs to be her permanent caregiver. “From the moment she gets up to the moment she goes to bed, I have to do everything,” he says: “clean her teeth, shower, dress her.” However, he tells us: “I don’t count it as a burden to have to care for her … I count it as a great privilege to care for this woman that I’ve loved all of these years and continue to love … She has done so much for me, over all of these years; now she can’t, but I can, and I can return her love.”
When I first saw it I was struck because it reminded me of another video that I’d seen several years previously, about a same-sex couple who had been together for 54 years. Bill was in the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease, and had to be cared for by his partner, John. “He needs a little more help and I’m glad I can do it,” John says. “It’s a real privilege. I call it payback time. I’m paying him back for all he did for me from day one.”
One view, which has many defenders among Christians who believe that homosexual acts are sinful, is that the term “same-sex attraction” is the clearest and most precise term for describing the experience of those who are, from time to time, tempted to commit homosexual acts.
However, the distinction between carnal and spiritual friendship makes clear that there are different ways of desiring union with a person of the same sex, some of which are virtuous and some of which are vicious. Unfortunately, the term “same sex attraction” introduces unnecessary confusion by lumping all of these desires in under one category.
Fr. James Martin – a Jesuit priest who has written quite eloquently on LGBT issues a number of times before – has a column in the latest edition of America magazine, “Simply Loving,” in which he asks why “so many gay people say they feel hatred from members of the church” despite the fact that most Catholics claim not to hate gay and lesbian people.
Fr. Martin suggests that one reason – aside from the obvious fact that a lot of LGBT people don’t agree with Catholic teaching about homosexual acts – is that it is very rare to hear many Catholics “say something positive about gays and lesbians without appending a warning against sin.”
The language surrounding gay and lesbian Catholics is framed primarily, sometimes exclusively, in terms of sin. For example, “We love our gay brothers and sisters—but they must not engage in sexual activity.” Is any other group of Catholics addressed in this fashion? Imagine someone beginning a parish talk on married life by saying, “We love married Catholics – but adultery is a mortal sin.” With no other group does the church so reflexively link the group’s identity to sin.