pulling out the theological trump card…

is not a very winning strategy in attempting to explain the Church’s moral teaching.

I started to think about this during a pro-life rally on the steps of the capitol building in Saint Paul several years ago. It was the first time I’d seen this particular slogan on buttons and posters: God is pro-life.

Okay, obviously I believe that is true… but how does that help to persuade the not-convinced? There are several things that make this slogan ineffective and unhelpful:

  • it is easily perceived as triumphalistic, and as a way to express a smug sense that “my way is God’s way”
  • it makes no appeal to human reason, thus shutting non-believers out of the conversation and giving the impression that the pro-life position is merely a credal position, rather than a human one
  • it simply invites the not-persuaded to pull out their own theological trump card, God is pro-choice, and now we’ve established the setting for a sequel to Homer’s Iliad, with warring gods duking it out

Of course, the slogan God is pro-life does have this in its favor: it could cause pro-choicers to reflect on the fact that they are not God. But, of course, pro-lifers share the same metaphysical situation…

I bring this up by way of introducing a conversation that I recently had with the “not-convinced” about another hot-button issue — namely , the sinfulness of homosexual behavior. My hope is that we can learn from mistakes made in other debates, such as the pro-life debate, in which the theological trump card has shown itself to be ineffective.

So what are the lessons learned? Firstly, that not every assertion that is true is helpful in advancing the conversation. Secondly, that in dialogue with the non-convinced (religious or otherwise), we have to find some common ground… and so the best approach is to situate the debate within the realm of this question: What does it mean to be human? This was one of the great insights of the Second Vatican Council and, in particular, of John Paul II.

What follows are some excerpts from the dialogue I recently had in a comments box on (the now-defunct) Dreadnought’s website.

* * * * * * *

A priest having a sexual relationship that is non-exploitative (= (i) with an adult, and (ii) outside any pastoral or hierarchical context) obviously literally breaks his vow of celibacy, but on the scale of sin it is at the extreme minor end, analogous to a speeding fine for driving slightly over the limit, *and* in circumstances where no harm was done.
Paul Watson

Paul,

 You said: A priest having a sexual relationship that is non-exploitative (= (i) with an adult, and (ii) outside any pastoral or hierarchical context) obviously literally breaks his vow of celibacy, but on the scale of sin it is at the extreme minor end, analogous to a speeding fine for driving slightly over the limit, *and* in circumstances where no harm was done. The Church understands Christ – and those configured to him in the ordained priesthood – as spouses of the Church. 

So breaking the commitment to celibacy is a form of adultery. Are you equating adultery with a speeding ticket?
Clayton

Clayton wrote: [A priest] breaking the commitment to celibacy is a form of adultery. Are you equating adultery with a speeding ticket? Clayton, “adultery” is a rather medieval word that seems to gave no application to gay sex (since the is no such thing a gay marriage) apart from the metaphorical sense in which you use it (being a “spouse of the Church” can’t ever be physically sexual, anyway – so it’s a dumb metaphor.)

OTOH, I’m NOT saying that (i) gay sex has its own in-built license, or (ii) medieval concepts should automatically be presumed obsolete. A priest having gay sex (with a (i) non-priest (ii) adult) will be much less likely to be exploitative than his having hetero sex with a woman, because the latter will most likely have a pastoral overlap (see my above comment). 

What matters, in the end, is that the priest does his job well –and if having sex is going to in any way compromise this, then obviously, the job must come first. The medieval absolutism of celibacy has long been effective in policing the boundaries here, but in 2005, it is somewhat of a once-size-fits-all, blunt instrument.

My really big problem with an absolutist approach to celibacy is the license/succour it indirectly gives to child-abusing priests. Spare me the “spouse of the Church” guff – what really matters is that a priest raping children is very, very bad, and not remotely in the same category as a priest having non-exploitative sex. And if you don’t admit this, then it is tantamount to endorsing the *former* as a relative speeding ticket, in the scheme of things.
Paul Watson

Paul, 

If adultery is a medieval word, what is it doing all over the Old Testament? Why is it, with the concept of covenant, thematically essential to the Torah? By the way, gay sex existed back then too. See the story of Sodom in the book of Genesis.

Clerical celibacy is not just a functional reality to keep expenses down for the Church, or to keep Church politics cleaner. If it were embraced solely for either of these reasons, obviously, the time would have come to dispense with it. As John Paul II took great care to explain in his Theology of the Body during a series of Wednesday audiences, celibacy exists to give a prophetic witness to the fact that sex and marriage do not exhaust our human calling, but that both are sacramental realities along the way to the final state that will be shared by all and with all. Without celibacy, the world lacks a witness to remind us that marriage is not our destiny but an essential part of the human pilgrimage toward beatitude. Without marriage, we have no point-of-entry, no sign reminding us of the total, fruitful, faithful love that awaits us in the kingdom of heaven.

To dispense with celibacy is to dispense with marriage, and vice versa. They are indispensable witnesses for each other.

Your suggestion that mandatory clerical celibacy must necessarily foster an environment in which some children are sexually abused by priests is a canard, since the rate of sexual abuse of children – undeniably a grave sin – happens with at least equal frequency with married men.

Your criteria for a sexual ethic (“non-exploitative sex”) is tenuous at best. It could be argued that gay sex is essentially exploitative, regardless of one’s relationships or commitments. It does not respect the human vocation to love in the image of God. I know these are fighting words, but spare me any vapid accusations of homophobia. To be a homosexual is not a sin. To engage in homosexual activity is a sin… since it does not respect the finality and vocation of those who engage in it. The human person is not destined for union with another who is metaphysically identical, but with an Other. To say otherwise is to endorse a form of atheism.
Clayton

Clayton – yes, I know that the world turned even before medieval times; I was using the word “medieval” as shorthand for a relatively brutal and inflexible ideological system. To extend my previous example, comparing clerical celibacy with car speeding fines/crimes. You maintain, as I understand it, that the former is black+white, but latter properly has shades of grey. Indeed, the current orthodoxies of the Vatican and our Western criminal justice system, respectively, confirm as much.

But what if we step outside these orthodoxies into cold applied philosophy? Specifically, if you accept that driving a speeding car, will, at its extreme end, almost certainly kill, so resulting in life-imprisonment (or worse) for the offending driver – why should a line (much less a whole series of lines) be drawn to say that driving slightly over the limit (and in circumstances where no harm was done) is any less serious? After all, it’s all just one big continuum/slippery-slope.

In other words, applying your celibacy matrix to car speeding fines/crimes would necessarily result in slightly-over-the-limit speeders getting mandatory life-imprisonment (or worse). I’m not saying that this – or hence you – would be absolutely wrong and ludicrous. In medieval times/mindsets, harsh and inflexible laws are, by definition, the way to go. What does trouble me though, Clayton, is that you seem to be having it both ways: in the bedroom, priests live in medieval times, while on the roads, they live under Enlightenment rules.
Paul Watson

Paul,

 After reading your comments through several times, I think I get your drift, although I disagree with it, even on the level of philosophy. As an aside, I wasn’t aware that philosophy came in a cold, hard variety — must be a reference to the Enlightenment… when philo + sophia (love of wisdom) became something akin to love of data, thanks to nominalism and the like.

Returning to your comparison of traffic law infractions with infractions of the natural law… I would say that they differ not only in degree, but in kind. It’s not a slippery slope… any more than calling apples oranges is a slippery slope… this is really a failure to make essential distinctions.

The ethics of human sexual behavior is a matter that depends on an anthropology and a determination of what is essentially human. It’s not a matter of positing a particular creed, but of a shared understanding of the nature of the human person. To violate this law is to violate something universal and essential to the good of the human person.

The ethics of behavior on the roadways depends on how a society decides to order itself. To be sure, the laws established are aimed at protecting the good of individuals and a society, but particular traffic laws vary from state to state, country to country… and so there is no one way to behave on the roadways that is absolute and binding on all persons. Such laws bind within a particular, limited context.
Clayton

Clayton said: Gay sex is essentially exploitative, regardless of one’s relationships or commitments. It does not respect the human vocation to love in the image of God. There you have it. This is the kind of spiritual violence the Church commits against gay people over and over again, the ongoing effort to dehumanize us. Obviously, the Church does not want its gay sheep to breathe and live as WHOLE human beings. A healthy expression of one’s sexuality is of course only a part of being whole, but it is a crucial part. However, Orthodoxy teaches that homosexuals’ most intimate feelings can never, ever express Love. This is not ‘human flourishing’, it’s a cruel, cold, cynical and inhuman attempt to control people. It’s a lie, plain and simple. 
Dreadnought’s descriptions of sex are indicative of how sad sexuality can become when you put it in a box and call it Lust. All that’s left is an animal-like sort of fornication, void of any human connection…or so it seems. Some dark urge, one has to compulsively give in to when it becomes too strong. And then off we go again to the priest to confess our sins and be forgiven. And don’t start with me about anti-Catholic bigotry, as a gay man from a Protestant background I’ve known this mechanism (although in a different form) personally. I know from experience how harmful, destructive and unethical this really is.

The Truth is, this type of doctrine has not in the least anything to do with morality at all. Nor is it based on Scripture, nor on the teachings of Christ. It has to do with imposing guilt, shame, and taking away responsibility.
Vincent

Vincent said: This is the kind of spiritual violence the Church commits against gay people over and over again, the ongoing effort to dehumanize us. Obviously, the Church does not want its gay sheep to breathe and live as WHOLE human beings. A healthy expression of one’s sexuality is of course only a part of being whole, but it is a crucial part. However, Orthodoxy teaches that homosexuals’ most intimate feelings can never, ever express Love. This is not ‘human flourishing’, it’s a cruel, cold, cynical and inhuman attempt to control people. It’s a lie, plain and simple.

I’m aware that the Church’s teaching about sex and marriage is not received as “good news” by many in the homosexual community. And my personal view is that the Church has not been very effective in demonstrating how her teaching does not oppress, but actually liberates the person with same-sex attractions. To do so, I think the conversation has to shift from the sinfulness of certain acts to the question of what, intrinsically, a sin is (missing the mark) and how the activity in question misses the mark. It has to address the question: what is the goodness, truth and beauty of striving toward that mark? Sin has become such a loaded word, carrying a heavy emotional payload not because of what it means, but because of the way it is sometimes used, as leverage over and against other people, as a spiritual trump card of sorts in an argument. It would be helpful to move beyond this way of talking about sin, which is surely not producing much in the way of fruitful dialogue. To say, “God finds gay sex to be deplorable” is like saying “God finds abortion to be deplorable.” Both statements are true, and can be supported from the scriptures and early patristic texts like the Didache, but noting all of this does not advance the dialogue.

A better method might be this: let the believer and the unbeliever in the Church’s teaching about sex both agree to consider a viewpoint not their own… for the sake of the dialogue. This isn’t a matter of giving up one’s convictions, but of each party creating an opening by which a dialogue can take place. Perhaps the other person is saying something I have not heard yet, and may even be saying something that is true. I think one has to adopt this attitude for a dialogue to go anywhere. And I think, in too many cases, on both sides of the argument there are not enough efforts to adopt this sort of attitude, as it is hard work, requires a certain discipline of the emotions and a certain reining in of the ego… and – most importantly – requires a readiness to take the risk of positing that the other person could have my best interests at heart, and could be seriously interested in the question of what is good, true, and beautiful…. in other words, it requires a mutual trust. We’re never going to lay a framework for discussion without this… as the breach of trust between persons goes to the heart of human woundedness. When the serpent convinced Eve that God was not a loving Father, but a cruel oppressor, everything began to crumble into suspicion and fear.
Clayton

Clayton said: The Church has not been very effective in demonstrating how her teaching does not oppress, but actually liberates the person with same-sex attractions. Well, I’m all for dialogue, but so far I’ve never heard any Orthodox explanation (from all branches of Christianity: Catholicism, Protestantism, Evangelicals, Russian Orthodox) that makes it clear what kind of ‘liberation’ it is they’re meaning. Even on this blog, while John is very effective in explaining the Church’s teachings, it remains completely clouded how this is supposed to work in real life. So far, anyone who challenges him or tries to engage in dialogue is labeled as enemy, Nietschzean, or moral relativist. 

For me, it comes down to this: if the Church thinks I cannot express my deepest inclinations, then this denies my dignity and my conscience. It means assenting to it will always result only in misery and self-loathing. And of course, the occassional ‘rumpy pumpy’ because I’ll always lose the fight with Lust. I hope you understand I don’t want that kind of life. I chose to live as a free man.
Vincent

Vincent,

 You’re right to aspire for freedom. The question of the hour is: in what does freedom consist? What brings true liberty to the human person? This is a fundamentally human question… one not predicated on one’s sexual orientation, or one’s creed.

I also appreciate your question about “how is this supposed to work in real life?” That is an essential question. I think John Paul II has at least arrived at the proper method of coming up with the answer, with his use of personalism and phenomenology, which makes an explicit appeal to human experience as something that reveals the truth about the person. Now it is up to the members of this generation to bring about an integration of faith and practice that makes sense. 

I would suggest that there are two things that bear examination: the inclinations of the human heart, and its aspirations. I think they’re different. Every human person has inclinations that, at times, conflict with their aspirations (the ideals, values, goals on which one sets his sights). So how does one work out this conflict?

I won’t try to answer your whole question here. Instead, I’ll simply point in what I believe might be the right direction: your dignity is most fully expressed by your aspirations and — in a qualified way — by your inclinations as well. What is the essential aspiration of the human heart? To love and to be loved. See C.S. Lewis essay, The Weight of Glory, for more on this.

There is no reason for you to loathe yourself, and certainly Christ does not loathe the work of his hands. Lust does not have the final word on how our lives play out… so do not grow discouraged by human weakness. In Christ, there is genuine freedom and strength to live according to one’s aspirations… that is the constant refrain of John Paul II.
Clayton

Clayton,

I appreciate your response. I agree with you one’s aspirations ultimately are more important than one’s inclinations. But…to be able to aspire for anything, one needs to be honest about one’s self. It is vital for the human soul to live in openness, honesty and authenticity, to live in Light. I also agree wholeheartedly the essential aspiration of the human heart is to love and be loved.
Vincent

* * * * * * *

Obviously this discussion hasn’t solved the world’s problems… but at least it had the merits of a dialogue, of a conversation that could actually go somewhere, rather than getting stuck in an endless circuit of accusations.

4 thoughts on “pulling out the theological trump card…

  1. Very nicely done (to both sides of the dialogue). I agree that its helpful to focus on the essential argument, which here appears as whether one can love and be loved while celibate. I think it is hard to be free if one cannot, regardless of one’s sexual orientation.

  2. wow…good stuff. I think I actually saw a moment of mutual thawing.This distinction between aspiration and inclination is really strong and speaks to my experience in many “sin-ruts” I’ve “found myself in.”Thanks, Kale

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