Bishop Geoffrey Robinson: “Towards a new understanding of lgbt lives and love”

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Presentation by Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, retired Roman Catholic auxiliary bishop of Sydney (Australia), for “The ways of Love”, an International Conference towards pastoral care with homosexual and trans people (Rome, Italy, October 3, 2014)

The thesis of this paper is in three parts:

1. There is no possibility of a change in the teaching of the Catholic Church on homosexual acts unless and until there is first a change in its teaching on heterosexual acts;
2. There is a serious need for radical change in the Church’s teaching on heterosexual acts;
3. If and when this change occurs, it will inevitably have its effect on teaching on homosexual acts.

PART ONE

There is no possibility of a change in the teaching of the Catholic Church on homosexual acts unless and until there is first a change in its teaching on heterosexual acts.
The constantly repeated argument of the Catholic Church is that God created human sex for two reasons: as the means by which new human life is brought into being (the procreative aspect) and as a means of expressing and fostering love between a couple (the unitive aspect). The argument then says that the use of sex is “according to nature” only when it serves both of these God-given purposes, and that both are truly present only within marriage, and even then only when intercourse is open to new life, so that all other use of the sexual faculties is morally wrong [1].
If this is the starting point, there is no possibility of approval of homosexual acts [2]. It is futile to look for change within this teaching.

PART TWO

There is a serious need for radical change in the Church’s teaching on heterosexual acts. As long as we understand ‘procreation’ to mean the production of adult children rather than simply the production of babies, I have no problem with the idea that marriage as an institution of the human race has both a procreative and a unitive aspect. But I have five serious difficulties with the teaching that every single act of intercourse must contain both of these aspects.

The First Difficulty: A Sin Against God

The first difficulty is that through this teaching the Church is saying that all use of sex that is not both procreative and unitive is a direct offence against God because it is a violation of what is claimed to be the divine and natural order that God established. This raises two serious questions, one concerning nature and the other concerning God.

The Question concerning Nature

If this divine and natural order exists in relation to our sexual faculties, should it not exist in many other areas of human life as well? So should not the Church’s arguments concerning sex point to many other fields where God has given a divine purpose to some created thing, such that it would be a sin against God to use that thing in any other way? Why is it that it is only in relation to sex that this claim is made?
I remember reading years ago the mocking argument that the natural God-given purpose of human eyes is to look forwards (that is why they are on the front of our heads), so rear vision mirrors in cars are against nature and hence immoral. Granted that this is a mocking argument, does it not raise questions about what we mean by “nature” and how difficult it is to draw moral conclusions from a claim to a divinely established nature?

The Question concerning God

Striking a king or president has always been considered a more serious offence than striking an ordinary citizen. In line with this, it was said, the greatest king by far is God, so an offence against God is far more serious than an offence against a mere human being.
Because all sexual sins were seen as direct offences against God, they were, therefore, all seen as most serious sins. Sexual sins were seen as on the same level as the other sin that is directly against God, blasphemy, and this helps to explain why, in the Catholic Church, sexual morality has long been given a quite exaggerated importance.
For centuries the Church has taught that every sexual sin is a mortal sin [3].
In this field, it was held, there are no venial sins. According to this teaching, even deliberately deriving pleasure from thinking about sex with anyone other than one’s spouse, no matter how briefly, is a mortal sin. The teaching may not be proclaimed aloud today as much as before, but it was proclaimed by many popes [4], it has never been retracted and it has affected countless people.
This teaching fostered belief in an incredibly angry God, for this God would condemn a person to an eternity in hell for a single unrepented moment of deliberate pleasure arising from sexual desire. This idea of God is totally contrary to the entire idea of God that Jesus presented to us, and I cannot accept it.
My first rebellion against Church teaching on sex came, therefore, not directly from a rejection of what the Church said about sex, but a rejection of the false god that this teaching presented.

The Second Difficulty: A Teaching Based on Assertions

The second reason for change is that the statements of the Church appear to be assertions rather than arguments. Both the unitive and procreative elements are foundational aspects of marriage as an institution of the whole human race, but does it follow:
– that they are essential elements of each individual marriage, no matter what the circumstances?
– that they are essential elements of every single act of sexual intercourse? On what basis?

For example, a particular couple might be told by medical experts that any child they had would suffer from a serious and crippling hereditary illness, and so decide to adopt rather than have children of their own. Are they acting against God’s will?
Another couple might decide that they already have several children and that they are both financially and psychologically unable to add to their family. On what basis is it claimed that they would be acting against God’s will?
There are always problems when human beings claim that they know the mind of God. So is the statement that it is God’s will, and indeed order, that both the unitive and procreative aspects must necessarily be present in each act of sexual intercourse a proven fact or a simple assertion? If it is a proven fact, what are the proofs? Why do Church documents not present such proofs? [5]
Would not any proofs have to include the experience of millions of people in the very human endeavour of seeking to combine sex, love and the procreation of new life in the midst of the turbulence of human sexuality and the complexities of human life? Is an ideal being confused with a reality?
If it is only an assertion, is there any reason why we should not apply the principle of logic: What is freely asserted may be freely denied? If it is no more than an assertion, does it really matter who it is who makes the assertion or how often it is made? Where are the arguments in favour of the assertion that would convince an open and honest conscience?

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The Third Difficulty: A Morality of Physical Acts

The third argument is that the teaching of the Church is based on a consideration of what is seen as the God-given nature of the physical acts in themselves, rather than on these acts as actions of human beings. And it continues to do this at a time when the whole trend in moral theology is in the opposite direction.
As a result it gets into impossible difficulties in analysing physical acts without a context of human relations. For example, some married couples find that there is a blockage preventing the sperm from reaching the ovum, but that in a simple procedure a doctor can take the husband’s sperm and insert it into the wife in such a way that is passes the blockage and enables conception. But the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith condemned this action because the physical act was not considered “integral”, even though the entire reason for this intervention was precisely that the couple wanted their marriage to be both unitive and procreative.
The Church’s arguments concerning sex are based solely on the physical act in itself rather than on the physical act as an action affecting persons and relationships.

The Fourth Difficulty: The Idea of “Natural”

It was God who created a world in which there are both heterosexuals and homosexuals. This was not a mistake on God’s part that human beings are meant to repair; it is simply an undeniable part of God’s creation.
The only sexual acts that are natural to homosexuals are homosexual acts. This is not a free choice they have made between two things that are equally attractive to them, but something that is deeply embedded in their nature, something they cannot simply cast aside. Homosexual acts come naturally to them, heterosexual acts do not. They cannot perform what the Church would call “natural” acts in a way that is natural to them.
Why should we turn to some abstraction in determining what is natural rather than to the actual lived experience of human beings? Why should we say that homosexuals are acting against nature when they are acting in accordance with the only nature they have ever experienced?
The Church claims that it is basing itself on “natural law”, but a natural law based on abstractions is a false natural law. Indeed, it brings the whole concept of natural law into disrepute.

The Fifth Difficulty: Not Based on the Teaching of Jesus

The fifth difficulty is that the entire idea of the necessity for both the unitive and procreative element in each act of intercourse is not based on anything Jesus said or implied, but comes from ideas outside the bible concerning acts that are said to be natural and acts that are said to be against nature.
In seeking to understand the moral nature of sexuality as a most powerful and important force in human life, why would the Church not turn to anything Jesus said or did, and instead rely solely on ideas from other sources?

The Dilemma

In the light of these five difficulties we are left with the fact that the Catholic Church is propounding a teaching that, on logical grounds, has never appealed to people, even those most favourably disposed. Even within the Church most people no longer accept it, especially among the young. Western society as a whole has rejected this teaching and gone to a position that is in many ways an opposite extreme.
Few people would today attempt a rational defence of the Church’s teaching, and it is not easy even to put forward a middle ground between the two extremes. It is this middle ground that I now wish to explore.

The Middle Ground

If we decide to leave behind an ethic that sees sex in terms of a direct offence against God, that emphasises physical acts rather than persons and relationships, that does not come from the gospels, and that is based on an assertion rather than a logical argument, where should we go? I suggest that the answer is that we should move to an ethic that:
1. sees any offence against God as being brought about, not by the sexual act in and of itself, but by the harm caused to human beings;
2. speaks in terms of persons and relationships rather than physical acts;
3. draws its ideas of what is natural from reality rather than abstractions;
4. draws consciously and directly on the gospels,
5. and then builds an argument on these foundations rather than on unproven assertions.

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From God’s Point of View

If it is impossible to sustain an entire sexual ethic on the basis of direct offences against God, all the evidence tells us that God cares greatly about human beings and takes a very serious view of any harm done to them, through sexual desire or any other cause.
“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea” (Mk.9:42).
“Then they will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’” (Mt.25:44-45)
In these two quotations Jesus identifies with the weakest persons in the community, and tells us that any harm done to them is a harm done to himself.
I suggest that this harm done to people is the real sin in matters of sex, the only sin that angers God.
I suggest, therefore, that we should look at sexual morality in terms of the good or harm done to persons and the relationships between them rather than in terms of a direct offence against God.
Following from this, may we say that sexual pleasure, like all other pleasure, is in itself morally neutral, neither good nor bad? Is it rather the circumstances affecting persons and relationships that make this pleasure good or bad, e.g. a good pleasure for a married couple seeking reconciliation after a disagreement, a bad pleasure for a man committing rape?

The Church v Modern Society

To take this further, if we go beneath the particular teachings of the Catholic Church on sex and come to its most foundational beliefs, I suggest that there is a fundamental point on which the Church and modern Western society appear to be moving in opposite directions.
In its simplest terms, the Church is saying that, because love is all-important in human life and because sex is so vital a way of expressing love, sex is serious, while modern society has become more and more accepting of the most casual sexual activity, even when in no way related to love or relationship.
On this basic point I find myself instinctively more in sympathy with the views of the Church than with those of modern society. Paradoxically, it was the effects of sexual abuse on minors more than anything else that convinced me that sex is serious.

Do not Harm v Love your Neighbour

Precisely because I see sex as serious, I cannot simply conclude that all sex is good as long as it does not harm anyone. I would never want to put the matter in those simple terms, for I have seen far too much harm caused by this attitude.
It is expressed in negative terms (“Do not harm”) and inevitably contains within itself the serious risk of brinkmanship, that is, that, with little thought for the good of the other person involved, one may seek one’s own pleasure and, in doing so, go right up to the very brink of causing harm to another. In a field as turbulent as this, countless people basing themselves on such a principle will go over that brink.
If we turn to the gospels, Jesus said “Love your neighbour” rather than “Do not harm your neighbour”, and love implies more than the negative fact of not harming. It implies a genuine respect for the other and positively wanting and seeking the good of the other.
The essential difference between the two is that an attitude of “Do no harm” can put oneself first, while “Love your neighbour” must put the neighbour first.
In applying this principle of Jesus, we must take the harm that can be caused by sexual desire very seriously, and look carefully at the circumstances that can make morally bad the seeking of sexual pleasure because they involve harm to others, to oneself or to the community.
Some of these factors are: violence, physical or psychological, deceit and self-deceit, harming a third person (e.g. a spouse), treating people as sexual objects rather than as persons, trivialising sex so that it loses its seriousness, failing to respect the connection that exists between sex and new life, failing to respect the need to build a relationship patiently and carefully, failing to respect the common good of the whole community.
It will be seen from all of this that, even though I see sexual pleasure as in itself morally neutral, I have most serious difficulties with the idea that “anything goes”. In reacting against one extreme, there is always the danger of going to the opposite extreme. I believe that this is what modern society has done in relation to sex.

A Christian Ethic

I suggest that the central questions concerning sexual morality are: Are we moving towards a genuinely Christian ethic if we base our sexual actions on a profound respect for the relationships that give meaning, purpose and direction to human life, and on loving our neighbour as we would want our neighbour to love us?
Within this context, may we ask whether a sexual act is morally right when, positively, it is based on a genuine love of neighbour, that is, a genuine desire for what is good for the other person, rather than solely on self-interest, and, negatively, contains no damaging elements such as harm to a third person, any form of coercion or deceit, or any harm to the ability of sex to express love?
Is the question of when these circumstances might apply, and whether and to what extent they might apply outside marriage, one for discussion and debate by both the church community and the wider community, and for decision and responsibility before God, other people and one’s own deeper self by each individual?
Many would object that what I have proposed would not give a clear and simple rule to people.
But God never promised us that everything in the moral life would be clear and simple. Morality is not just about doing right things; it is also about struggling to know what is the right thing to do. It is not just about doing what everyone else around us is doing; it is about taking a genuine personal responsibility for everything we do. And it is about being profoundly sensitive to the needs and vulnerabilities of the people with whom we interact.
I believe that there is normally a far better chance of a sexual act meeting the requirements I have suggested within a permanent vowed relationship than outside such a relationship. But I could not draw the simple conclusion that: inside a vowed relationship everything is good, outside everything is bad. The complexities of human nature and the turbulence of sexuality do not allow for such simple answers.

PART THREE

If and when this change (in the teaching concerning heterosexual acts) occurs, it will have its effect on teaching on homosexual acts. If we apply what I have just said about heterosexual acts to homosexual acts, several things follow.
Negatively, I could not accept for homosexual acts, any more than I can for heterosexual acts, that “anything goes”, or that morality can be based on self-interest or on nothing more than the brinkmanship involved in the idea of “not harming” another person. I would ask that homosexual persons be as conscious as heterosexual persons of how easily thoughts about sex can be directed solely towards self-interest and lead to harm. I could not applaud a deliberate lifestyle of many transient sexual partners, any more than I could applaud this in heterosexuals, for I cannot see how this could be reconciled with everything I have said in this paper.
Positively, it would follow that sexual acts, whether heterosexual or homosexual, are not, in and of themselves alone, offensive to God. It would mean that sexual acts are pleasing to God when they help to build persons and relationships, displeasing to God when they harm persons and relationships. Since I seek a specifically Christian ethic, I would always hope that they be based on a genuine loving or willing the good of the other rather than solely on self-interest or self-gratification.
If Church teaching were based on persons and relationships rather than on what is considered “according to nature” in the physical act, consideration of homosexual acts would exist in a whole new world and would have to be rethought from the very beginning.
In short, if you wish to change the Church’s teaching concerning homosexual acts, then work to bring about change in its teaching on all sexual acts.

Scripture

There are statements in the Scriptures that appear to condemn homosexual acts. There are five in particular, two in the First Testament (Genesis 19 and Leviticus 18:22) and three in the Second (Romans 1:26-27, I Corinthians 6:9, and I Timothy 1:10). While there are difficulties in interpreting all five, they cannot simply be brushed aside. Despite this, there are four points to keep in mind.
Leviticus calls homosexuality an “abomination”, but the word is used 138 times in that Testament, and it apples even to things that we would take for granted today, e.g. eating shrimp.
The prevailing attitude in ancient times was that all people were in fact heterosexual, and it was on this basis that it was thought that homosexual acts were wrong.
In the culture of ancient Israel there was a sexual hierarchy in which men were dominant and women submissive. Under this understanding, in a homosexual act a dominant man was treated as a submissive woman, and this was considered wrong.
The law concerning homosexuality in Leviticus is part of the purity laws, and the early Church accepted that Jesus had abolished these laws.
The statements on homosexuality in the Second Testament do not give convincing reasons for their prohibitions, leaving us with the feeling that they are a relic from the purity laws.
In short, it is hard to build too great an edifice on these texts. It remains true that the entire field of sexual morality is in urgent need of being studied again from the foundations up.

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[1] The most important papal document on sexual morality of the last century, the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae, expressed the argument thus: “Such teaching, many times set forth by the teaching office of the church, is founded on the unbreakable connection, which God established and which men and women may not break of their own initiative, between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning. Indeed, in its intimate nature, the conjugal act, while it unites the spouses in a most profound bond, also places them in a position (idoneos facit) to generate new life, according to laws inscribed in the very being of man and woman. By protecting both of these essential aspects, the unitive and the procreative, the conjugal act preserves in an integral manner the sense of mutual and true love and its ordering to the exalted vocation of human beings to parenthood.” Pope Paul VI, encyclical letter Humanae Vitae, 26th July 1968, no.12.

[2] The Catechism of the Catholic Church deals with the question with quite extraordinary brevity: “(Homosexual acts) are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity.”

[3] See Noldin-Schmitt, Summa Theologiae Moralis, Feliciani Rauch, Innsbruck, 1960 Vol.I, Supplement De Castitate, p.17, no.2; Aertnys-Damen, Theologia Moralis, Marietti, Rome, 1956, vol.1, no.599, p.575. The technical term constantly repeated was mortale ex toto genere suo. The sin of taking pleasure from thinking about sex was called delectatio morosa.

[4] For example, Clement VII (1592-1605) and Paul V (1605-1621) said that those who denied this teaching should be denounced to the Inquisition.

[5] In recent years there has been an appeal to anthropology, but I have not seen a clear statement of how anthropology demands that every act of intercourse include both the unitive and procreative purpose.

Le Strada dell'amore, Rome, 3 October 2014