A lot of information (and misinformation) has been swirling around concerning a recent report by the United Nations (UN) Committee on the Rights of the Child which criticizes the Catholic Church. Among the claims that keep being repeated is that the UN has called on the Church to “change its teaching” on homosexuality. It’s a claim repeated gloatingly by some in the media (“see, we told Catholics they were wrong, now the UN says so”), and with outrage by Catholic commentators (“how dare those liberal desk-drivers at the UN tell the Church what to do!”). But is it actually true? And, either way, what difference does it make to our efforts to reach out to the LGBT community?
In Part 1, I argued that efforts to present Catholic teaching on sexual ethics as if human sexuality were ordered toward “heterosexuality” are misleading. Human sexuality is ordered toward self-gift through celibacy or marriage.
I think that the Christian community can learn much about both marriage and celibacy as expressions of human sexuality from the experience of Christians living with homosexual attractions. First, let’s talk about celibacy.
Even in the Catholic Church, one of the few major denominations in which celibacy is a widespread practice, a spirituality of celibacy has, in recent years, been seriously lacking. Discussions of celibacy are often restricted to discussion of priestly celibacy, and spiritual and theological considerations are sometimes downplayed in favor of practical arguments about how celibacy puts people at liberty for mission.
Austin Ruse, the President of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, is running a series of critical investigations on the work of Spiritual Friendship (or on the “New Homophiles,” as he calls us) over at Crisis Magazine. His most recent article, “The New Homophiles and Their Critics,” takes a look at the arguments of some of the more seasoned critics of our ideas such as Daniel Mattson and Michael W. Hannon. At the end, Ruse poses an important question:
Your 14-year-old son feels different from the other guys at school … He confides this to a counselor who asks him about his sexual orientation. Your son says that maybe the difference he feels is that he is gay …
Now, do you want your son to talk to Chris Damian, one of the New Homophiles who has said he would tell that young man to “Seek to draw yourself more fully into the Church and to discern how this might be a gift in your life and in others’ lives.”
Or do you want him to meet Daniel Mattson and Father Paul Scalia who would tell the boy, “You are not your sexual inclinations. You are not ‘gay.’ What you are is a man and a Son of God.”
At first blush there seems to be very little difference between the two, but as you gaze more closely at all that is packed into the New Homophile Proposition, you realize the difference is immense and may be profoundly harmful.
Recently, both Ron Belgau and Melinda Selmys have written here on Spiritual Friendship about Joseph Sciambra’s book Swallowed by Satan and the hubbub it has caused amongst conservative commentators. In the book, Sciambra recounts his slow descent from teenage Playboy consumer to gay Satanist and sado-masochistic porn star who dabbles in Neo-Nazi rituals. Before undergoing a Christian conversion experience at the end of the book, Sciambra enjoys an astonishing variety of sexual liasons that I will not discuss in detail here. Conservatives have seized gleefully on Sciambra’s narrative as an expose of the sordid reality behind the “gay agenda.” Sciambra has featured on LifeSiteNews and on Bryan Fischer’s show. The message from the Religious Right is that homosexuals are out to recruit your children into the gay lifestyle—a never-ending carnival of witchcraft, Nazism, and sex with goat-headed men (you don’t want to know more, trust me).
I am not sure Sciambra is doing the Church any favors. When someone claiming to be promoting biblical teaching about homosexuality gives the impression that anything other than the slimmest imaginable proportion of gay lives are a whirligig of devil-worship and sexual sadism, chances are that when someone finds out this picture of the gay community is not accurate (by, say, meeting normal gay people), they will also conclude that Christian moral teaching is false.
I have an essay that has been published over at Ethika Politika today, a combined response to four recent articles pushing the “don’t say gay” claim.
In it, I explore the meaning and value of gayness from a historical perspective in conversation with two queer intellectuals—Michel Foucault (a lapsed Catholic atheist) and Marc-Andre Raffalovich (a devout Catholic convert from Judaism). Here is a brief taste:
History always involves a certain amount of anachronism, of reading the past in light of the present, precisely because history is something constructed in the present. Despite professing to be an attempt to raise our level of moral virtue (and I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of this profession), the “don’t say gay” claim, applied to history, robs gay people of almost all of the great examples of moral virtue they have. By ripping up our current cultural framework for the understanding of sexuality, we might legitimately claim that men like Hopkins and Raffalovich weren’t really gay at all, but at what cost? Once you’ve redefined faithful, orthodox gay Christians out of existence, and once you’ve erased them from history, the claim that you can’t be gay and a good Christian simply becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
You can read the rest here.
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we are told that “tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered’” (2357). Tradition hasn’t always claimed precisely this, of course, since no-one put the label “intrinsically disordered” on anything during the first millennium of Christian history. Tradition has, however, always claimed that such acts were seriously wrong, and this amounts to the same thing, as I pointed out in a previous post.
But it would be naive to think that because some aspects of the Church’s teaching cannot change, therefore no aspect of it can change. A quick look at history shows that Catholic beliefs about homosexuality have already undergone significant change.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) recently established an online resource entitled Marriage: Unique for a Reason, to educate Catholics on why marriage “should be promoted and protected as the union of one man and one woman.”
Done properly, this is an important task. But it must be remembered that the debate about gay marriage is less about homosexuality than it is about the nature and purpose of marriage as an institution and as a sacrament. Precisely because we are in need of sound teaching on this topic, it is disappointing to see the USCCB’s website—whose posts are written by anonymous “staff” rather than by bishops—used not to teach about marriage, but as an opportunity for promoting half-baked theories about homosexuality.
Given the volume of unhelpful literature published on the topic of homosexuality and Christianity, I should perhaps not have been surprised to find Dale O’Leary’s latest piece at Crisis Magazine distinctly unimpressive. I did expect, however, that an article entitled “Homosexuality: A New Approach is Needed,” would at least attempt to articulate an approach that was actually new, instead of simply regurgitating the pop Freudianism and New Age psychobabble that forms the standard conservative Christian approach to gay issues.
The central pillar of this approach is that homosexuality is an “attachment disorder” brought about by failure to identify with a same-sex parent. This failure is invariably presented as the fault of the parent. In a much older article published by Crisis, which, again, falsely bills itself as offering “a new approach,” we read the following:
Aardweg notes that most homosexuals report lack of masculine influence from their fathers, ranging from lack of involvement in the child’s education to open hostility … Bieber found that 75 percent of his sample described their fathers as detached and 45 percent described their fathers as hostile … Aardweg quotes homosexuals’ descriptions of their relationship with their fathers: “My father was interested in my brother and not me”; “My father was a weak person; he was frequently ill”; “I only met my father on Sundays when he was not working… for me he was no more than a visitor.”
Recently there has been a “coming out” pandemic amongst celibate gay Christian bloggers. First Matt Jones—previously known as “Jordan” but now blogging under his own name at A Joyful Stammering (and Spiritual Friendship)—went public about his identity. Then Catholic blogger Steve Gershom revealed to the world that he is actually Joey Prever.
For two reasons, this trend is good news for both the Church and the world. The first, as Matt Schmitz points out, is that given the increasing acceptance of homosexual relationships in the West, the Church can no longer expect its teachings on sexuality to be credible if they are presented merely in syllogisms. If gay people are to be convinced that the Church has something to say that is worth listening to, that message will be best received when it comes from gay Christians themselves, and is shown forth in their lives. If the Church wants to speak credibly about homosexuality it must be prepared to speak “in the first person,” just as it has recently made an effort to teach the truth of Christian marriage by canonizing married saints and encouraging first-person experiential accounts of living out the Church’s teachings on marital love.
If there is one thing we can learn from Pope Francis’s recent comments on gay Christians, it is that style matters. Francis said nothing other recent popes haven’t said, but the winsome way he said it earned him a hearing from many for whom Catholic teaching on homosexuality is considered toxic.
Many Catholics have expressed disquiet with the form in which that teaching has been presented in recent decades, and in particular with the Church’s oft-repeated claim that homosexuality is “intrinsically disordered.” Less has been said, however, about what the Church might say instead of this.
As Eve Tushnet points out, “you can’t have a vocation of not-gay-marrying and not-having-sex.” It’s important not to reduce what the Church has to say to gay people merely to its teaching on sex. But while not-having-sex is only a small part of what the Church has to say, it is worth thinking about how it could be better presented, given that the ham-fisted way in which this particular teaching is presented often causes significant damage to the Church’s relationship with the gay community.