Sexual self-actualization should be tempered not by the idealization of
purity and innocence but by the judgment of what makes for creative and
growth-oriented interpersonal relations or whether a given liaison
is expressive of love and concern.
– Raymond J. Lawrence
New understandings of the totality of the person
support a radically new concern for sexuality
as an expression and a cause of love.
– Margaret A. Farley
In 1455, a Roman Catholic Pope, named Nicolas, issued what is known as a “papal bull” authorizing Portuguese explorers “to invade, search out, capture, vanquish and subdue all Saracens and pagans” encountered along the west coast of Africa, enslave them, and confiscate their property. I learned this through an article sent to me this past week by a friend. The article is from a publication called, Indian Country Today, and was published in July, 2008. It’s a very telling article about 13 indigenous grandmothers who had gone to Rome to plead with the present Pope, Benedict XVI, to ask him to rescind historic church doctrine that played a key role in the genocidal slaughter of millions of indigenous people worldwide. To view a PDF of the full article, click here.
I bring this story up because I couldn’t overlook the synchronicity of its showing up in my inbox in the same week that I intended to write another post dealing with issues arising from the reality of our lives as sexual human beings. In a previous post, I focused on the controversial issue of abortion. In this post, I want to address what is probably the second most controversial issue dividing people of faith as well as non-believers these days: homosexuality.
Before I offer some of my own thoughts, I want to share another news article in my collection. It is from the Chicago Tribune, and was published July 10, 2000. It reports on the reaction of Pope John Paul II to a gay pride festival held in Rome on the previous day. The Pope, speaking to a crowd in St. Peter’s Square gathered as part of the celebration of the 2000-year anniversary of the Church, condemned the gay pride parade, calling it offensive to Christians and reiterating the Church’s teaching that homosexual acts are “contrary to natural law.” The article draws to attention the ironic juxtaposition of the Pope’s activities for the day, in which, prior to his address, he had visited one of the oldest prisons in Rome, celebrating mass “for incarcerated murderers, thieves, rapists, drug dealers” and “offering them his personal blessing.” The conclusion we obviously are meant to draw from this juxtaposition is that the official Church looks more favorably and forgivingly upon murderers than it does on loving same-sex couples.
Finally, in my file, I have a news article from the Denver Post, dated August 7, 1999, reporting a speech by Thomas Gumbleton, then an auxiliary bishop in the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit, and a person whose own position on homosexuality reversed after he learned that his brother is a gay man. In the speech, to several hundred Catholics attending a convention that summer of Dignity/USA, a support group for Catholic homosexuals, Gumbleton said, “Do not walk away from those who love you in the Christian family. I hope that I can stretch out my hand to you and you can stretch out your hand to me, and that our Holy Church will stretch more and more.”
Gumbleton also apologized to the crowd for “the way I and others in the church have hurt you in the past, for our failure as bishops and teachers in the church, and that our failure has brought great pain.” [To read a contemporary response to frequently asked questions about Christian teachings and sexual orientation written for DignityUSA by Daniel A. Helminiak, Ph.D, the author of What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality, click here.]
What are we to make of all of this? For me, the terrible history of our inhumanity to one another finds a directional hope in the evolutionary story of our Universe. I bring up the story of the indigenous grandmothers for two reasons: first, to point out the powerful influence of Christian churches on social and political history, and second, because it is so profoundly clear from that story that what were accepted perceptions and behavior toward different-looking, different-behaving human beings some 500 years ago, with resultant mass indigenous extinctions not only in Africa, but in North and South America and other colonized areas of the world, simply would not be tolerated by the world community today. I draw from this realization hope that we are continuing together on a global journey of learning just what it means to be a human being, and the diversity existent within that.
My most helpful resource in recently teaching sexual ethics has been the work of the feminist, Christian ethicist, Margaret A. Farley. In her book, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, Farley remarks on the questions behind the ongoing controversy surrounding the ethics of same-sex relationships:
These questions are among the most volatile issues in churches and synagogues across the United States. They are ethical questions that must be addressed because they remain, for many, the heart of the matter regarding homosexuality – a major issue for church unity, a central factor in gay and lesbian individuals’ continuing journey of faith, a challenge to a society that all too frequently tolerates discrimination and even violence against its gay and lesbian people. They are ethical questions that must be addressed also because they are questions about real persons – questions about identity, place in community, relationships, and callings.(p. 272)
Farley goes on to note that in the Christian churches, the debate about same-sex relationships tends to focus on the interpretation and use of Scripture and tradition. The first of these is the obligation within the tradition, drawn from an interpretation of Scripture, “to marry and to procreate.” Farley notes the influence within these interpretations of the “patriarchal model upon which ideas of marriage and society were institutionally based.” Today, our understandings of the purposes of sexual intercourse are changing, as I noted in my previous post.
Farley also notes that sexual rules found in the Hebrew Bible, for example the prohibition in Leviticus against males lying “with a male as with a woman,” need to be understood in the context of a concern of the time to distinguish practices of the Israelites from what was considered the idolatry of neighboring cultures. Only later in Christian history do these specific rules link homosexual behavior with moral evil. (p. 273).
Again, I bring all this into this post because I draw hope from the Universe Story in facing this and other truly divisive concerns in our churches and societies today. Clearly, our history as human beings has been filled with intolerance and violence toward the one who is “different.” Yet at the same time, as we continue to learn through the Universe Story more and more about the marvelous nature of our humanness, perhaps we will soon be able to “stretch” out our hands, as Bishop Gumbleton suggested.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of history bends towards justice.” It seems to me that if we look at the arc of the history of Christian tradition, we can see that when it comes to a question of tradition vs. justice, the tradition always transcends itself in recognition of what is now seen as “the right thing to do.”
Perhaps one day, all of us will be able to embrace one another in reverence and respect for the truly diverse expression of humanity that we, each and every one of us, represent.
Farley, M., (2006). Just love: A framework for christian sexual ethics. New York, NY: Continuum