Does the Catholic Church Need a Sexual Revolution?

Australian Bishop Geoffrey Robinson in 2008 (by Amy Elliott).
At the Seventh National Symposium on Catholicism and Homosexuality held in Baltimore on Friday, retired Australian Roman Catholic Bishop Geoffrey Robinson called for “a new study of everything to do with sexuality” — a kind of study that he predicted “would have a profound influence on church teaching concerning all sexual relationships, both heterosexual and homosexual.”

The National Catholic Reporter covered the event, quoting Bishop Robinson as saying, “If [church] teaching on homosexual acts is ever to change, the basic teaching governing all sexual acts must change.”

Robinson, a priest since 1960 and auxiliary bishop of Sydney from 1984 until his retirement in 2004, told the conference participants, sponsored by New Ways Ministry, that “because sex is so vital a way of expressing love, sex is always serious.”

In Bishop Robinson’s address Sexual Relationships: Where Does Our Morality Come From? he puts forth a thesis in three parts:

1. There is no possibility whatsoever of a change in the teaching of the Catholic Church on the subject of homosexual acts unless and until there is first a change in its teaching on heterosexual acts;
2. There is a serious need for 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.

And on the topic of same-sex marriage, Catholic priest Ceirion Gilbert, diocesan youth director in south Wales, wrote recently in The Tablet:

“I sense that once again, as so often on issues of sexual morality, that there is a gulf between the diktats of the institution and the “sensus fidelium”, that concept that seems to have almost disappeared in recent years for some reason from the ecclesiastical vocabulary. …

I welcome the debate on the meaning of marriage and its role and purpose in a liberal diverse society. But growing ever stronger in my mind is the fear that while as a Church we worry about language and words – Welsh or English or Latin; rock or plainsong; marriage or civil partnership – the message and meaning that we are here to proclaim is passing us by … .”

The “Green” Issue of Birth Control?

Much has been said about Pope Benedict’s comments regarding selective condom use as a possible minor first step in taking personal responsibility for one’s actions. Below is a very thoughtful Letter to the Editor of the Washington Post from a member of a local Catholic parish:

The clarifications of Pope Benedict XVI’s comment on condoms [“Theologians debate meaning of pope’s condom remark,” news story, Nov. 24] are suggestive, given the oft-stated concern of this “green pope” for the environment.

Incongruously, he remains in denial about the reality of global overpopulation, even while accepting the scientific evidence of human-caused climate change.

But the view ascribed to him by his spokesman – of the moral imperative of “taking into consideration the risk of the life of another” and “avoiding passing a grave risk onto another” – applies as much to the ravaged world that we are leaving to posterity as it does to the AIDS epidemic.

Might not a sophisticated thinker such as Benedict eventually come to see that the ecological harm done by overpopulation is the strongest argument of all for birth control?–Daryl P. Domning, Silver Spring

In part, the issue Domning raises is whether principles of moral discernment can be applied in a variety of situations that require moral decisions or do certain virtue ethics apply in cases of sexuality but not in other equally dire situations.

Andrew Wilkes: Evangelicals, Race, and GLBT Issues

LaTona Gunn holds a 2001 photo of her daughter, Sakia Gunn, at her home in Newark. Sakia, 15, was stabbed to death while waiting for the bus in Newark after she and her friends told her attacker they were lesbians.
LaTona Gunn holds a 2001 photo of her daughter, Sakia, 15, who was stabbed to death while waiting for the bus after she and her friends told her attacker they were lesbians.

I really appreciated Andrew Wilkes excellent post today on Sojourners blog on the evil of indifference when it comes to how dominant sexuality Christians relate to gays and lesbians (Ignoble Indifference: Evangelicals, Race, and GLBT Issues).

Andrew worked with Sojourners as a policy and organizing fellow and added his depth and richness to our ministry life. Now he’s back at Princeton Theological Seminary and getting ready to graduate this spring. Andrew is a noble son of the Black church tradition and it gives me hope that our future is carried by him and his compatriots. Here’s an excerpt:

While progressive evangelicals consider color within and beyond the Emergent Church, let us not ignore the stories of our gay and lesbian brethren as if the two issues are completely separate. The two issues ought not be conflated, and yet they are inextricably intertwined.

Far too often, black and brown youth who are gay and lesbian suffer from an unceasing stream of epithets, threats, and violence in the formative years of life. From the ghastly murder of Sakia Gunn, a fifteen-year-old lesbian, to the skull-fracturing beating of Gregory Love at Morehouse, visceral responses to homosexuality have provoked not only dehumanizing discourse but also destructive deeds. Violence against our gay and lesbian brethren — again, many of whom are black and brown — is immoral, illegal, and incompatible with those who follow the Prince of Peace.

Another sin of civil rights storytelling is that many who invoke Martin King ignore Bayard Rustin. And yet, the emergence of Martin King as a nonviolent prophet is unintelligible without brother Rustin — a brilliant organizer, orator, nonviolent strategist, and also a gay man.

Or when Tonex, perhaps the most gifted gospel artist of the past quarter-century, came out, many of his peers publicly threw him under the pews. The not-so-subtle message was twofold: one cannot be explicitly gay and publicly offer praise to God; and secondly — since everyone and their grandmama knows that there are gay gospel artists — one must suffer in silence before God and Church. This message is unhelpful, tacitly encouraging a culture of shame and clandestine sexuality.

Instead, let progressive evangelicals acknowledge that there are Christian arguments for gay marriage, civil unions, and so forth. One may or may not be convinced, but let us be charitable enough to acknowledge that there are Jesus-loving and justice-seeking believers who have theological reasons to account for their sexuality, an open and affirming church, and so forth.

The stone-cold truth, I suspect, is that more than a few progressive evangelicals are indifferent about GLBT issues. By God’s grace, I ashamedly — and yet gratefully — admit that I am slowly being delivered from this apathy.

“There is an evil which most of us condone and are even guilty of: indifference to evil. We remain neutral, impartial, and not easily moved by the wrongs done unto other people. Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself … The prophets’ great contribution to humanity was the discovery of the evil of indifference. One may be decent and sinister, pious and sinful.”–Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Insecurity of Freedom, pgs. 110-1

Gracious Triune God of love and justice, deliver us from this ignoble indifference.

Read more on this discussion here. To watch the amazing documentary on the life of Bayard Rustin, see Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin. And for more on Sakia Gunn, read here.

Second Openly Gay Bishop Elected in Worldwide Anglican Communion

Mary Glasspool reacts during her election with Bishop Jon Bruno behind her.
Mary Glasspool reacts during her election with Bishop Jon Bruno behind her.

I was very pleased to note that the Anglican Church/Episcopal Church USA has elected two women–Mary Douglas Glasspool and Diane Jardine Bruce–to serve as assistant bishops in the Los Angeles diocese. Of note is the fact that Canon Glasspool is openly lesbian and has been in a committed relationship since 1988. With her election she becomes the second openly gay bishop in the worldwide Anglican Church. Bishop Gene Robinson was the first. Also last fall, the Church of Sweden (which is Lutheran, but in communion with the Anglican Church of England) consecrated Eva Brunne, also a partnered lesbian, as Bishop of Stockholm.

As a Roman Catholic, I’m interested in how other denominations are working through the complex issues of sexuality and the call to serve the church in ordained ministry. Over at Ekklesia, Savi Hensman wrote a nice piece (Liberating the Anglican Understanding of Sexuality) that tracks some of the journey of the Episcopal Church on the issue of sexuality:

Indeed the Episcopal Church’s openness to lesbian bishops is the result of a long process of reflection and study in keeping with the advice of numerous Anglican gatherings and the principles of international canon law. The “duty of thinking and learning” is a theme that has come up repeatedly at international gatherings. The church should learn from the work of scientists, calling upon “Christian people both to learn reverently from every new disclosure of truth, and at the same time to bear witness to the biblical message of a God and Saviour apart from whom no gift can be rightly used”, and should welcome “the increasing extent of human knowledge” and the “searching enquiries of the theologians”. In 1978 the Lambeth Conference called for “deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality, which would take seriously both the teaching of Scripture and the results of scientific and medical research”, “pastoral concern for those who are homosexual” and “dialogue with them”. As understanding of human sexuality grew, and more theologians made the case for full inclusion, many in the Episcopal Church came to believe that being a woman or gay should not result in being treated as a “second-class citizen”, let alone an outsider.

Concern for justice and commitment to human rights was another theme, including, from the 1980s, those of “homosexual orientation”. In the USA and other countries covered by the Episcopal Church, LGBT people at times face persecution and violence. While opposition to such mistreatment does not automatically lead to acceptance of same-sex partnerships as a proper lifestyle for Christian leaders, it does make it harder to depersonalise a particular minority and ignore the realities of their lives. This concern for justice has also led to greater self-examination. For instance, the Anglican Consultative Council in 1990 called on “every Diocese in our Communion to consider how through its structures it may encourage its members to see that a true Christian spirituality involves a concern for God’s justice in the world, particularly in its own community.”

Various denominations have excellent new theological papers reflecting their developing understanding of human sexuality within Christian thought. Here are links to a few of them:

Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America)

Some Issues in Human Sexuality: A Working Paper of the House of Bishops (Church of England)

Marriage: A United Church of Canada Understanding