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.
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,” [pdf] 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.
Here is Messori’s summary of Ratzinger‘s thoughts on the separation of sexuality from marriage and procreation:
“The issue is the rupture between sexuality and marriage. Separated from motherhood, sex has remained without a locus and has lost its point of reference: it is a kind of drifting mine, a problem and at the same time an omnipresent power.”
After this first rupture he sees another, as a consequence: “After the separation between sexuality and motherhood was effected, sexuality was also separated from procreation. The movement, however, ended up going in an opposite direction: procreation without sexuality. Out of this follow the increasingly shocking medical-technical experiments so prevalent in our day where, precisely, procreation is independent of sexuality. Biological manipulation is striving to uncouple man from nature (the very existence of which is being disputed). There is an attempt to transform man, to manipulate him as one does every other ‘thing’: he is nothing but a product planned according to one’s pleasure.
If I am not mistaken, I observe, our cultures are the first in history in which such ruptures have come to pass.
“Yes, and at the end of this march to shatter fundamental, natural linkages (and not, as is said, only those that are cultural), there are unimaginable consequences which, however, derive from the very logic that lies at the base of a venture of this kind.”
In his view we will atone already in our day for “the consequences of a sexuality which is no longer linked to motherhood and to procreation. It logically follows from this that every form of sexuality is equivalent and therefore of equal worth.” “It is certainly not a matter,” he specifies, “of establishing or recommending a retrograde moralism, but one of lucidly drawing the consequences from the premises: it is, in fact, logical that pleasure, the libido of the individual, become the only possible point of reference of sex. No longer having an objective reason to justify it, sex seeks the subjective reason in the gratification of desire, in the most ‘satisfying’ answer for the individual, to the instincts no longer subject to rational restraints. Everyone is free to give his personal libido the content considered suitable for himself.”
He continues: “Hence, it naturally follows that all forms of sexual gratification are transformed into the ‘rights’ of the individual. Thus to cite an especially current example, homosexuality becomes an inalienable right. (Given the aforementioned premises, how can one deny it?) On the contrary, its full recognition appears to be an aspect of human liberation.”
There are, however, other consequences of “this uprooting of the human person in the depth of his nature.” He elaborates: “Fecundity separated from marriage based on a life-long fidelity turns from being a blessing (as it was understood in every culture) into its opposite: that is to say a threat to the free development of the ‘individual’s right to happiness’. Thus abortion, institutionalized, free and socially guaranteed, becomes another ‘right’, another form of ‘liberation’.” (pp. 84-86)
In fact, of course, in a church which accepts the legitimacy of contraception, the absolute condemnation of same-sex relations of intimacy must rely either on an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous texts, or on a problematic and non-scriptural theory about natural complementarity, applied narrowly and crudely to physical differentiation without regard to psychological structures. I suspect that a fuller exploration of the sexual metaphors of the Bible will have more to teach us about a theology and ethics of sexual desire than will the flat citation of isolated texts; and I hope other theologians will find this worth following up more fully than I can do here.
These two excerpts are, of course, not a full argument for the claim that contraception and same-sex marriage are linked. But when two widely respected theologians—who disagree about the legitimacy of same-sex sexual relationships—agree that there is a conceptual link between accepting contraception and accepting same-sex sexual intimacy, the link is worth thinking about. More would need to be said to answer the various objections that might be raised by those—particularly Evangelicals—who accept contraception but oppose same-sex marriage (and who do not regard either Anglican Bishops or Popes Emeritus as having any particular authority).
I will try to write a bit more about this in the near future. In the meantime, I share these quotes to stimulate thought, and welcome any ideas that readers want to share in the comments. (I should add that because Spiritual Friendship is an ecumenical conversation, not all of our writers share the Catholic viewpoint on contraception or see the deep theological link between contraception and same-sex marriage that I am suggesting here.)
Clarification: This original version of this post misrepresented Rowan Williams’ position on same-sex marriage. In “The Body’s Grace,” he took a tentatively positive view of same-sex sexual intimacy. In 1989, however, he did not frame this in terms of support for same-sex marriage. As Archbishop of Canterbury, he backed away from his previous endorsement of same-sex relationships. In 2012, he opposed the British Government proposal to legalize same-sex marriage (the proposal was accepted and went into effect in 2014). It would have been more precise to say that in 1989, Williams offered theological support to same-sex sexual relationships, rather than to say that he supported same-sex marriage. I regret the confusion.