Fertility Religion versus Human Rights
I. Institutional Homophobia, Religiously Defended!
Following one of his many interviews, Bishop Gene Robinson<1> got headlines
for saying the obvious:
‘ the greatest single hindrance to the achievement of full civil rights for
gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people can be laid at the doorstep of
the three Abrahamic faiths: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.’<2>
Not only are religious institutions agents in and sponsors of the oppression of
lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered persons (hereafter = LGBT). They
marshall highly trained experts to rationalize their policies by giving them
highly articulate expression. In case anyone needs convincing, let me take two
examples from Christianity, my own faith tradition. After all, repentance begins
Roman Catholic Distinctions: Over the last thirty years, the
Vatican–headquarters to the largest Christian body–has issued a series of
documents opposing the creation of legal institutions to house sexually active
same-sex partnerships. Their overall strategy is ‘divide and conquer’. First, they
drive a wedge between the homosexual condition (which they recognize as
involuntary but deviant and disordered) and homosexual activity (which they take
to proceed from free choice and condemn as a grave moral wrong).<3> They imagine
thereby to open space for the clergy to be pastorally sensitive and morally
censorious at the same time!<4> (Fairness prompts me to confess that the Church of
England makes the same move in Issues and Some Issues in Human Sexuality.<5>)
Second, Vatican documents distinguish between the individual rights of
homosexual persons qua human persons (which Pope Benedict XVI recognizes as
foundational to any healthy society and as including freedom to make morally
significant choices within the private sphere) and the creation of legal
institutions to house sexually active same-sex partnerships. The Pope seems to
allow that the state may properly be expected to tolerate private immoral sexual
behavior among consenting adults (the documents are concerned with ‘de facto
unions’ as well as homosexual relationships). But the state should not create new
legal institutions to house any sexually active lifestyle alternatives to
heterosexual marriage and the families it establishes. On the contrary, Catholic
legislators and members of the electorate have a duty publicly to oppose any
legislation to establish civil partnerships and to vote against it; where such
measures have already been passed, to be conscientious objectors who work for
repeal (perhaps even exercize civil disobedience).
Vatican documents defend these positions with arguments drawn from premisses
[P1] lifestyles should be institutionalized only if they make a
significant contribution to the common good,
[P2] lifestyles should not be institutionalized if they endanger the
Heterosexual marriage and the families it fosters do contribute to the common
good. They are the approved locus for reproducing the human race and socializing
the next generation. Heterosexual married couples shoulder much of the
responsibility for making sure that the human race goes on. Vatican documents urge
that heterosexual marriage and the family are therefore essential to the common
good, because no other institutions for housing sexual activity (e.g., proposed
institutions for ‘de facto unions’ or homosexual partnerships) would be apt for
performing these social functions. The social utility of heterosexual marriage and
the family establishes their right to be legally protected and promoted.
But–Vatican documents insist–institutionalizing other sexually active lifestyles
would seriously damage or undermine the institution of marriage, because it would
advertize competitors as socially approved ways of being in the world. Therefore,
by [P1] and [P2], legal institutions should not be created to house them.
To the objection that the refusal to create legal institutions to house
homosexual partnerships, is a violation of the rights of LGBT as individual
persons and citizens, the Pope makes two replies: first, that the state does
protect LGBT rights to freedom of choice regarding their private affairs; and
second, that it would be
‘gravely unjust to sacrifice the common good and just laws on the family in order
to protect personal goods that can and must be guaranteed in ways that do not harm
the body of society’.<6> Evidently, should individual rights and the common good
come into conflict, the interests of the body-politic trump! Elsewhere, the Pope
has been willing to speak of homosexual activity as ‘behavior to which no one has
any conceivable right.’<7>
Nigerian Sanctions: Within the Anglican communion, Ephraim Radner and Andrew
Goddard, writing for the evangelical website Fulcrum, reconsider the connection
between individual human rights and the legal status of LGBT activities with a
focus on the Nigerian church. The Nigerian state has, for some time, criminalized
homosexual activity, with sanctions up to fourteen years imprisonment. More
recently, the then Anglican Archbishop Akinola urged passage of a further bill to
ban same-sex blessing or marriage ceremonies, to penalize those involved in them,
and to outlaw the promotion of same-sex activity of any kind and through any
means, with penalties of up to five years imprisonment.<8> In response to liberal
Anglican critics, Radner and Goddard ask, precisely what was wrong with Archbishop
Akinola’s initiative? They find the following principles defensible:
(P3) it is appropriate to impose legal sanctions on lifestyles that
endanger the common good and/or do violence to other citizens;
(P4) it is appropriate for the state to impose legal sanctions on
activities that are seriously morally wrong, where this is supported by
overwhelming social consensus and congruent with traditional mores.
Many individual Christians, indeed millions of individual Anglicans, and many
Anglican provincial churches officially hold that homosexual lifestyles endanger
the common good, and that homosexual activity is seriously morally wrong because
contrary to and subversive of traditional moral teachings. It follows–by (P3) and
(P4)–that it is appropriate for states where such a consensus prevails to impose
legal sanctions on homosexual activities. Thus, Radner and Goddard see no reason
why Nigerian Anglicans should not encourage the state of Nigeria to impose legal
sanctions on homosexual activity, when their church and society agree in counting
it a serious moral wrong.<9>
Radner and Goddard do think that Archbishop Akinola erred, however, not in
advocating widened legal sanctions, but in sponsoring penalties that are too
severe. Radner and Goddard agree with the Vatican that the human rights of
homosexual persons qua persons have to be respected. Christian values join secular
mores to insist on this. Human rights set a limit on what Christians can admit as
morally tolerable. Nigeria and the Anglican Archbishop of Nigera have gone too
Evidently, the Vatican approves this pattern of reasoning and combination of
conclusions. In December 2008, the Vatican opposed a United Nations declaration
backed by all twenty-seven states in the European Union, that called for an end to
criminal penalties based on sexual orientation, although the Vatican has
consistently held that Iran and Saudi Arabia go too far when they impose the death
penalty.<11> Vatican documents also suggest that homosexual partnerships might do
violence to other individual citizens–e.g., when they contend that rearing by
homosexual ‘parents’ would violate the rights of the adopted child<12> and so run
counter to the UN Declaration on the rights of children.<13>
What these discussions share is an attempt to decouple respect for individual
human rights of persons qua persons from the status of homosexual lifestyles and
activities in civil law. They hope thereby to have their cake (to avoid the charge
of being human-rights violators) and eat it too (by vigorously opposing legal
institutions for same-sex partnerships and/or by advocating criminal penalties for
Illiberal Logic: Such conclusions inherit their illiberal character from
their premisses. Their claim–
[P1] that lifestyles should be institutionalized only if they make a
significant contribution to the common good
–contrasts with the liberal view according to which a major part of the state’s
job is to protect individual rights, not only by imposing legal sanctions on
concrete harms (torture, detention, deprivation of food and water and medical
care) but also by creating and maintaining the infrastructure within which
individuals can pursue their projects and interests. To furnish these for some but
not for others (e.g., marriage for same-race but not mixed-race couples) is unfair
and hence discriminatory. To give heterosexual marriage and the family a monopoly
on institutional housing, is, and is meant by the Vatican and sex-and-gender
conservative Anglicans to be, a way of erasing LGBT lifestyles respectable modes
of being in the world. It is what Jesus was referring to when he spoke of being
cast into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth!
Likewise, their principle–
(P4) it is appropriate for the state to impose legal sanctions on
activities that are seriously morally wrong, where this is supported by
overwhelming social consensus and congruent with traditional mores–
raises liberal hackles. How can we ignore the history of social consensus behind
human-rights violations of which slavery and apartheid would be prime examples?
Liberalism begins realistically, with the recognition that human beings are
‘socially challenged’, neither good enough nor smart enough to organize utopia.
All humanly devised social organizations spawn systemic evils that privilege some
while being cruel and degrading to others. Because in the vast majority of sorts
and conditions, some social order seems better than no social order, most members
of society have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and have a
significant incentive to blind-eye the social side-effects, lest their consciences
be raised by looking them in the face. The first duty of the liberal state is to
recognize, rule out, and uproot such human rights violations by erecting
institutional hedges against them and imposing legal sanctions on them. The
liberal state betrays its purpose when it sacrifices the fundamental human rights
of individuals in the name of the common good (as happened following 9/11 at
Problematic Assumptions: Nor are the general principles all that liberals
find dubious in these arguments. [i] Vatican documents talk as if ‘heterosexual
marriage and the family’ referred to a single institution from Eden to the
present, when in fact it is a homonymn that covers a wide variety of social roles.
Without having detailed knowledge of 1700 BCE bedouin family systems, we can
nevertheless be sure that Sarah’s relation with Abraham was very different from
that between Hellenized Christians in first century CE Asia Minor and Rome and
that between Ozzie and Harriet in the 1950’s American serial ‘Father Knows Best’!
[ii] Undeniably, the many and various institutions down through the ages that
have joined heterosexual couples, have contributed to the preservation of the
human race. But [P2] and [P3] apply to same sex partnerships, only on the basis of
further claims that cry out for empirical testing: e.g., that the existing
institutions of heterosexual marriage and the family would be seriously undermined
if competitor sexually active lifestyles were given institutional housing; that
heterosexual marriage and the family would be seriously undermined by
institutionalizing homosexual partnerships in particular (give the small
percentages of LGBT in the population); that heterosexual marriage and the family
could not be replaced by equally effective networks of alternative institutions;
that the lack of gender-complementary adult caretakers seriously disrupts the
healthy development of children. However much Roman Catholics wish to freeze
present institutional arrangements for managing human sexuality, traditional
institutions are unravelling and transmogrifying, and it may well be that the
proliferation of lifestyle alternatives is essential to the process by which
society will eventually settle down to new and more wholesome patterns.
My illustrations give the puzzle concrete grip. How does religion that sets
out to serve what is good (to help people grow in the knowledge of God and love
for God and neighbor), how does biblical religion that sees every human being as
created in God’s image come to sponsor what liberals regard as obvious human
rights violations? How do its promoters, brilliant of mind and zealous in heart,
come to feel confident and comfortable reasoning in such ways? My answer is that
they get there by (most likely unconsciously) taking four easy steps.
II. Step One: Social Modelling and the Argument from Tradition:
The ‘Size-Gap’ and Theological Method: The practices and policies of
Christian religion are rationalized in terms of beliefs about God and Divine
purposes. Foundational for biblical religion generally and Christianity in
particular, is the conviction that God is very, very, big, and we are very, very
small; or, in more biblical language, that God’s ways are higher than our ways
(Isa 55:8-9). This starting point has two consequences for theological method.
First, the ‘size-gap’ makes appeals to tradition reasonable. Consider the analogy
of human parents and their offspring, where the size-gap–if much reduced–is
still significant. It takes human infants roughly eighteen years to get initiated
into the adult world. They work up on it by successive approximations, as their
cognitive and emotional capacities grow and develop. Adults orient children by
teaching them certain ways of being in the world, ways of seeing and valuing what
they experience. So also and all the more so with Godhead. When it comes to
getting a grip on Who God is and what God wants with the human race, the human
learning curve is very steep. There is no way that we could figure it out all by
ourselves in one short lifetime. The bible covers 1700 years of ‘feeling after’
and trying to ‘find’ out the most elementary points (such as that God is not in
favor of child sacrifice) (Acts 17:27). It took tradition 1800 more years to
figure out that God does not really approve of slavery. This makes it reasonable
for human beings, in trying to get oriented to God and God’s world, to ‘put
themselves to school’ to tradition and to put their own experience in dialogue
with to what their forebears have thought.
Second, theology trades in social analogies. In biblical religion, God and
the people of God form a society. Down through the ages, when adherents try to
express who we are to God and Who God is to us, they naturally take their own
society as a model. The method is simple. They say, ‘it is as if God occupies
these roles and we occupy those roles.’ Then they read off the role expectations
what human beings might be able to count on from God and what God might require of
human beings. Thus, in the bible, God is the husband and Israel the wife (Jer
3:1-5; Hos 2:1-20; Ezek 23:1-49); God is king or emperor, Israel God’s chosen
people (Ps 93:1-5; Ezek 34:1-31), the monarch God’s son (Ps 72:1-19; Ps 110:1-7);
God is friend to Abraham (Gen 18:16-33) and Moses (Ex 33:11; Dt 34:10) and to
everyone who believes in Jesus (Jn 15:15-17; 17:23); God is father and believers
are adopted children (Rom 8:15,23; Gal 4:5; Ephes 1:5).
In fact, Scripture and tradition reflect roughly 3700 years of human history,
during which forms of human social organization have varied significantly (compare
the bedouin clan, imperial Rome, Calvin’s Geneva, the modern nation state,
post-modern globalism). Down the centuries, many contrasting social systems and
roles have been mapped onto the heavens. The size-gap means that this is all to
the good: God is too big to squeeze into social roles of human devising. Each is
at best an analogy that captures something while distorting something else.
Mapping many models on top of one another allows us to view God from many
different angles. Tensions among the roles may provoke deeper insights. How is God
both father and mother, warrior-fierce yet gentle healer, lord and servant,
honored and glorious yet despised and rejected? Liberal theologians like me would
say that this process can and should go on forever (or at least as long as this
present age lasts) as new social arrangements give rise to fresh analogies.
Religion would become a dead letter and the size-gap would be radically
underestimated if tradition–what has been handed down already–were allowed to
have the last word!
The Sins of the Fathers, Descending: Where God and the people of God are
concerned, social modelling is natural and necessary, helpful and illuminating.
But ‘merely analogical’ and ‘partial’ are not its worst downsides. Much more
insidious is the fact that the human social systems that we project onto the
heavens are inevitably unjust. I said it before, and I’ll say it again. Human
social competence is poor. We have limited imagination and so don’t know how to
organize utopia. We don’t understand the behavior of systems very well, so that
social arrangements always have side-effects that we didn’t anticipate and don’t
consciously recognize. What’s worse, because human beings feel threatened in an
environment of real and apparent scarcity, social organization turns competitive.
The result is that every human society spawns systemic evils, structures of
cruelty that torment and degrade some while privileging others. Because such evils
are systemic products, their roots network throughout the social system,
contaminating every role. Because order seems safer than upheaval and chaos, most
members will feel a considerable investment in keeping social arrangements the way
they are and thus become complicit in systemic evils. The sins of the fathers will
descend to children’s children merely by teaching them their social roles. Casting
God in various roles in such societies down through the centuries already
represents God as complicit in the systemic evils to which they give rise.
III. Step Two: True Religion and Civil Religion, Conflated:
Theological method already dirties God’s hands a little bit (the way
America’s most upstanding human rights advocates can’t entirely wash their hands
of Abugraib). But the God of the bible plunges in up to His elbows (I uses the
masculine pronoune advisedly), when true religion gets conflated with civil
religion. True religion teaches that God alone is worthy of worship. Torah sums up
Divine purposes in an enlightened theology of life. Torah declares that God is
life. For everything else, God is the source of life and its only reliable
sustainer. Human beings are entitled neither to life nor to the means of its
preservation, but receive life as a gift, which God can be trusted to keep on
giving. Because material life cannot be naturally permanent or self-sustaining,
God covenants with human beings for a lifestyle of courteous consumption: human
beings will be welcome to use the resources of God’s world so long as they live as
courteous guests who acknowledge their host and respect life in God’s other
Nevertheless, true religion has its competitors. Durkheim was right: human
societies are essentially self-deifying. They make an idol of their own survival.
Civil religion sets up a rival creed. Society is the source of life and its only
reliable sustainer. As a sine qua non of individual existence, society’s existence
and flourishing are sacred. Therefore, individuals who owe their existence to
society, owe it to society to be and do their part to maintain society and enable
it to flourish, not least by living out their assigned social roles.
Civil religion is very strong and easily disguises itself as true religion,
by turning God into a tribal totem or team mascot (e.g., I Sam 4:1-11; Ps 60:10).
God is represented as the supranatural founder and enforcer of the existing social
order. God’s reason for being is to win battles, to secure a land rich in
resources, to provide the good weather required for successful farming, in
general, to guarantee the survival and prosperity of the social order. Key for
present purposes is that God is no longer merely complicit in systemic evils like
any member of society who may or may not recognize, may or may not personally
approve such policies and consequences. Within idolatrous civil religion, God is
their author and enforcer. Moreover, the All-wise God sees through all of the
systemic consequences, and sponsors the present social order with open eyes!
IV. Step Three: Fertility Religion:
Slippery-Slope Conflations: Civil religion quickly turns into fertility
religion, because the survival of the human race, of a given ethnic group or tribe
or clan, does depend on the prudent management of the group’s reproductive
potential. Sexual mores that are thought to promote social survival and
flourishing are built into roles and enforced with laws and regulations, attendant
rewards and sanctions. Thus integrated and institutionalized, publicly approved
social roles are easy to learn and are constantly reinforced. By contrast,
patterns of sexual activity that are thought to be subversive of social survival
are denied any institutional definition or housing. Once again, they are ‘cast
into outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ Because such
behaviors and any lifestyles premissed on them are deemed traitorous, society sets
up taboos against them. They are not just wrong, they should be rendered
unthinkable. People caught engaging in them should not merely be punished. They
are ‘beyond the pale.’ They forfeit their place in polite society.
Sexuality thus becomes a participating symbol<14> of social survival. Sexual
behaviors not only have concrete consequences but symbolic punch. Female purity
becomes an emblem of social integrity; the violation of women, a natural sign that
community boundaries are losing definition. The traditional white wedding dress
not only makes a claim about the individual girl’s chastity. It pays public
tribute to social norms and asserts the community’s right to go on in the
prescribed way. Obviously, groups that fail to reproduce themselves in appropriate
numbers will die out (like the celibate Shakers). But the ‘steam’ around sexual
mores is generated, not by the practical effects of this or that individual’s
transgression, but by what it symbolizes. For animals in a world of scarcity,
survival is a desperate issue. Collective ruin is what sexual offenses come to
True religion’s use of social analogies already makes God complicit in the
sexual mores and taboos of the societies in question. When true religion gets
conflated with civil religion turned fertility religion, God is made the
authorizer and organizer of fertility religion. God is drafted into the role of
shoring up institutions with commandments and sanctions and denouncing the
absolutely intolerable as ‘abominations to the Lord.’ Because true religion gets
its bearings from tradition, the effect is cumulative and conservative: God is
made to stand behind a whole range of sexual institutions, prohibitions, and
taboos that originally went with societies very different from our own.
Once again, examples may make these points more vivid. Biblical Fertility
Religion: However much biblical prophets inveigh against Canaanite fertility
religion, it is quite obvious that Torah teaches its own brand. God is the source
of fertility, which will continue only if the people of God go along with God’s
program, obeying Divine commands and ordinances, not least by first-fruit
offerings (Ex 23:19; Lev 23:1-4; Dt 26:2-11) which some took to include the
sacrifice of first born sons (Gen 22; Ex 22:29-30; Dt 15:19). God promises to the
patriarchs and their descendants center on land and fertility–star-numerous
offspring, flocks and herds fruitful and multiplying, grain and wine and oil
increasing. Survival for beduoin clans and small cities were thought to require
maximizing reproductive potential. As guaranteed seed-wasters, homosexual activity
and intercourse with non-human animals were ruled out as abominations (Lev
18:22-23). Intercourse with women at the wrong time in their cycles was also
forbidden, because very probably fruitless, but not counted as abominable because
it could be socially destabilizing to deny husbands access to their wives (Lev
15:19-29). Likewise, adultery was a form of theft (it ‘plowed with someone else’s
heifer’; cf. Judges 14:18) and jeopardized the husband’s prospects of continuing
his family line (Ex 23:16-17; Lev 21:10; 18:20; Dt 22:13-29). Especially for
women, it could be treated as a capital offense. Conversely, levirate marriage
allows a dead brother to borrow seed from the living, lest he be left without
issue and deprived of his ‘Aristotelian immortality’ (Dt 25:5-10). Sterility was a
sign of Divine disfavor sometimes contradicted by miraculous reversal (e.g., Sarah
[Gen 18:9-15], the wife of Manoah [Judges 13:2-25], Hannah [I Sam 1:9-2:11],
Elizabeth [Lk 1:5-25, 57-80]).
Fertility Religion, Vatican-Style: Vatican documents contain much that is
promising. They recognize how human being has to be considered at three
levels–the biological, much of which it shares with other animals; the personal,
which transcends the animal in rational free agency; and the spiritual, which
rises beyond both because human beings are called by God.<15> Vatican documents
forward a theology of marriage defined by covenant, complementarity, and openness
to life. By contrast with merely de facto partnerships, marriage involves a free
and irrevocable mutual covenant to a lifetime of total self-giving. Here the
emphasis is on the quality of personal relationships and their being embraced as a
Divine vocation. The other two markers would also admit of personal and spiritual
interpretations: complementarity of personalities, of personal and spiritual
strengths and weaknesses and expertise; openness to creativity in its many forms
and to a life-posture of welcome and nurture of other persons. So construed, the
Vatican portrait is attractive and insightful, and it is gender neutral, an ideal
to which homo- as well as heterosexual couples often aspire.
Vatican documents don’t go there, however, but feature fertility religion
instead. Their focus is on defending heterosexual marriage as the only legitimate
housing for sexual intercourse.<16> Having begun with the personal and spiritual,
attention shifts down to the biological. Complementarity essentially includes the
bodily equipment needed for bisexual reproduction.<17> ‘Openness to life’ means
‘no sexual intercourse that does not allow for the possibility of conceiving a
child’.<18> The total self-giving of one partner to another is also dragged down
to animal mechanics to forbid not only contraception but equally go-between
technology to foster conception.<19> Vatican documents do not take seriously the
possibility that it might be more self-giving and open to life of a husband to use
a condom if he is infected with HIV or if his wife’s health would be seriously
jeopardized by another pregnancy.<20> Occasionally Vatican documents recognize
how–within couplings that are personal and spiritual–sexual intercourse serves
twin functions: not only the procreative but the unitive, strengthening of bonds
between partners. But the documents relentlessly insist that the two aspects are
inseparable, that no sexual intercourse that is not open to breeding is
permissible.<21> Ironically, Vatican fertility religion betrays its ascetical
background, when it seeks to keep sexual intercourse down to a minimum, while
mostly maximizing the reproductive potential of what it allows.<22>
V. Step Four: Rationalizing the Taboos
Social modelling in theology gives us Divine complicity in systemic evils;
idolatrous civil religion makes God the author and enforcer of systemic evils;
idolatrous civil religion turned fertility religion puts Divine power and
authority behind ancient sexual mores and taboos. Their observance is mandated in
‘God’s Word written’. Centuries of religious practice and reflection reassert
them. A Strong Argument from Tradition–that ‘God’s Word written’ and/or the
everywhere-and-always or at least majority-report testimony of tradition should
never be contradicted–makes biblical religion captive of ‘the spirits of many
past ages,’ because it dictates the enforcement of centuries-old and centuries’
worth of sexual taboos. The bible explicitly denies women headship roles over men.
Tradition seems to most not to preserve records of women in ordained ministry.
Both Scripture and tradition declare homosexual intercourse an abomination. So
Christian believers who do not–in the words of Cardinal Kasper–’feel free to go
against tradition’ in these matters are firmly committed to the preservation of
sex-and-gender conclusions that liberals find ancient and outmoded at best and at
worst rife with injustice.<23>
Nevertheless, sex-and-gender conservatives take offense at the suggestion
that they are trafficking in taboos. After all, taboos are irrational or at least
non-rational. They aim to rule out behaviors that appear so dangerous, that
seemingly so threaten to unravel the social fabric, that society has a vested
interest in erasing them from our consciousness. Thus, taboos are rooted in
terror. They are by nature inarticulate insofar as they seek to render the
excluded unspeakable. Sex-and-gender conservatives see themselves as moral
theologians engaging in the task of social ethics and commending their conclusions
to others as following from reasoned argument.<24> Homosexuality is taken out of
the closet and openly spoken about. Vatican documents represent their claims about
heterosexual marriage and the family as ‘objective truth’ that is grounded in
human nature.<25> Their directives reflect ‘natural law’ and the dictates of
‘right reason’.<26> Civil law that contradicts natural law and right reason has no
moral authority. Not only Catholic legislators and voters, but morally
conscientious people should oppose legislation in favor of gay marriage and–where
it is in force–work for its repeal.<27>
Within some approaches to ethical theory, ‘Do whatever right reason
dictates!’ is a fundamental maxim. Likewise, natural law, grounded on human
nature, is held to be universally binding on human individuals and bodies
politic.<28> But to make these general principles the stuff of moral persuasion,
one has to add particular premisses–’Right reason commends this and/or condemns
that behavior’, ‘This lifestyle is enjoined by natural law’, ‘That lifestyle is
contrary to nature’–which need also to command assent. Unfortunately, it is
precisely in commending the particular premisses that Vatican documents appear to
outsiders to beg many questions. Thus, the Pope insists that it is ‘certain’ and
‘evident to right reason’ that biological gender complementarity is essential to
marriage.<29> Other documents speak of its being ‘inscribed in human nature’.<30>
But what seems obvious is the biological fact (let us grant for the sake of
argument that it is a fact) that bisexual reproduction is natural and normal for
the human species. It doesn’t follow from this that the nuclear family is a
‘natural society’ that exists prior to any social institutions<31> or ‘the
original cell of human life.’<32> Bisexual reproduction is natural and normal for
wolves, too, but they instinctively run in packs! Even if right reason would grant
societies some sort of right to the prudent management of reproductive potential
towards the end of social survival, what counts as prudent is context-dependent.
In an over-populated world, maximizing reproduction will not contribute to the
long-term survival of the human race. Remember China’s one-child policy! LGBT
partnerships might join clerical celibacy as lifestyle alternatives that benefit
society by curbing population growth!
The Pope’s vehement declaration that
‘ [t]here are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be
in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and the
family’ because ‘[m]arriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural
so overstates the case that we may be pardoned for suspecting that his remarks
are not underwritten by calm philosophizing, but are fueled by fertility religion.
He confirms this hypothesis in his very next sentences:
‘ Homosexual acts “close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not
proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no
circumstances can they be approved.”’<33>
Breeding requires the union of opposite sexes. Sexual intercourse has to carry
with it the biological possibility of conception; otherwise it is ‘hedonistic’ or
Other documents make it clear that the particular premisses are being
supplied by appeals to authority. Reacting to ‘an overly benign interpretation’ of
‘the homosexual condition’,<35> the Pope argues that the biblical witness is
univocal against homosexual activity, that in any event what is authoritative is
the interpretation of Scripture by tradition and the Magisterium.<36> And the
clear teaching of the Church is that it is only within heterosexual marriage that
‘the use of the sexual faculty can be morally good’.<37> But–pace Papa–Scripture
and tradition are human as well as divine, and–insofar as they are
human–sacralize the systemic evils of centuries-old and centuries’ worth of
sexual taboos. They are declared to represent God’s order and their violation is a
‘destruction of God’s work’!<38> I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the
Strong Argument from Tradition appeals to the sins of the fathers to justify
VI. Repentance and Works Meet for Repentance:
Bishop Robinson has faith in God and is hopeful. Religion and society can
change. Not only that, religious voices can help change society. To this, I would
add two things. Change will require repentance and works meet for repentance. And
in this, the liberal state and civil society can help change the Church.
The first step for the Church is to renounce the Strong Argument from
Tradition–that tradition should be preserved exactly as it was handed down and
never changed–in favor of a doctrine of ecclesia reformata et semper reformanda
(the Church reformed and ever in need of reform). Christian religion cannot do
without tradition, any more than human children can rear themselves. Yet, a good
upbringing is not an obstacle but a platform for creativity and discovery. Grown
children who love their parents, challenge them when they think they’re wrong. So
also and all the more so, adult Christians have a duty, not only to respect
tradition, but to weed it: to identify systemic evils that are ripe for uprooting
and to dig them out with shovel and trowel.
Sex-and-gender conservatives accuse liberals of being co-opted by ‘the spirit
of this present age’ instead of ‘taking all thoughts captive to obey Christ’.
This is a false dichotomy. Fertility religion puts the Church in bondage to the
spirits of past ages. Civil society has already exorcized some of these demons.
Precisely because they come at things from different angles, Church and civil
society can be friends in helping each other identify which systemic evils need to
be dealt with next. In the mid-twentieth century, American churches played an
important role in bringing racial segregation to an end. Turn of the twenty-first
century, civil society is taking the lead in reversing sex-and-gender
The second step for the Church is to renounce fertility religion in favor of
its foundational obligation to respect the image of God in every human person.
The Church should repent by apologizing to LGBT for centuries of complicity in and
sponsorship of LGBT oppression, right down to the present day. It should do works
meet for repentance by reversing its discriminatory policies regarding blessings
and ordination of coupled LGBT. The Church of England, for instance, should
withdraw its demand to be exempt from national sex-and-gender equal opportunity
laws before Parliament loses patience. And Anglican Communion leaders including
the Archbishops of Canterbury and York should quit harrassing TEC for ordaining
Bishop Robinson and New Westminster, Vancouver for authorizing rites to bless
homosexual partnerships, and come out of the closet actively to oppose Lambeth
Marilyn McCord Adams
<1>:The approval by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church (TEC) of Gene
Robinson’s election as bishop of New Hampshire in June 2003 caused a furor among
sex-and-gender conservatives within the pan-Anglican communion, and occasioned the
appointment of the Windsor Commission, whose controversial report appeared the
following year. TEC consecrated a second partnered LGBT bishop, Mary Glasspool, as
suffragan in the diocese of Los Angeles in May 2010.
<2>:Bishop Robinson said this in a speech at the Center for the Study of Law and
Religion at Emory University in Atlanta on 6 April 2009.
<3>:Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of
Homosexual Persons (Ratzinger 1986), sec. 3.
Considerations regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions between
Homosexual Persons (Ratzinger 2003), sec.3.
<4>:Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of
Homosexual Persons (1986; Ratzinger) , secs.16-17.
Instruction concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with regard
to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in view of their Admission to the Seminary
and to Holy Orders (2005 Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski), sec.2
Catechism of the Catholic Church, secs. 2357-2359
http://www.vatican.va/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a6.htm [accessed 17/04/2009]
<5>:See Some Issues in Human Sexuality: A Guide to the Debate (London: Church
Publishing House) GS 1517, ch.8, 253-289.
<6>:Considerations regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions
between Homosexual Persons, sec.9.
<7>:Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of
Homosexual Persons, sec.10.
<8>:Ephraim Radner & Andrew Goddard, “Human Rights, Homosexuality and the
Anglican Communion: Reflections in Light of Nigeria,” sec.1.
http://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/?167 [accessed 16/04/2009].
<9>:Ephraim Radner & Andrew Goddard, “Human Rights, Homosexuality and the
Anglican Communion: Reflections in Light of Nigeria,” sec.4.
<10>:Ephraim Radner & Andrew Goddard, “Human Rights, Homosexuality and the
Anglican Communion: Reflections in Light of Nigeria,” sec.5.
‘“<11>:Homosexuality is as great a threat as rainforest destruction,” says Pope’,
<12>:Family, Marriage and ‘De Facto’ Unions, sec.23, p.12.
<13>:Considerations regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions
between Homosexual Persons, sec.7 (Ratzinger 2003).
<14>:That is, a symbol that participates in the reality that it symbolizes.
<15>:The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality: Guidelines for Education within
Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part Three, Sec.2,ch.2, art.6;
http://www.vatican.va/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a6.htm. [accessed 17/04/2009]
<16>:Catechism of the Catholic Church, secs. 2348-2359.
<17>:Family, Marriage and ‘De Facto’ Unions (2000), sec.23.
<18>:Catechism of the Catholic Church, secs. 2366, 2368, 2370.
<19>:The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality: Guidelines for Education within
the Family (Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo 1995), sec.32.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, secs. 2370, 2376-77.
<20>:The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, secs.137-139; Catechism of the
Catholic Church, sec.2363.
<21>:Catechism of the Catholic Church,secs. 2366-2370; Considerations regarding
Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons, sec.7.
<22>:Considerations regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions
between Homosexual Persons, secs.2-3; Catechism of the Catholic Church, secs.
<23>:Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of
Homosexual Persons, secs. 4-6, 8; Considerations regarding Proposals to Give Legal
Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons, secs. 2-3.
<24>:Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of
Homosexual Persons, sec.2.
<25>:Family, Marriage and ‘De Facto’ Unions, secs.12, 23.
<26>:Considerations regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions
between Homosexual Persons, secs.2-3; Catechism of the Catholic Church, sec.2357;
Family, Marriage, and ‘De Facto’ Unions, sec.13.
<27>:Considerations regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions
between Homosexual Persons, sec.6.
<28>:Considerations regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions
between Homosexual Persons, sec.6.
<29>:Considerations regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions
between Homosexual Persons, sec.3.
<30>:Family, Marriage, and ‘De Facto’ Unions, sec. 23.
<31>:Family, Marriage and ‘De Facto’ Unions, secs.9, 25.
<32>:Catecism of the Catholic Church, sec. 2207; Family, Marriage, and ‘De Facto’
<33>:Considerations regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions
between Homosexual Persons, sec.4; Catechism of the Catholic Church, sec.2357.
<34>:Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of
Homosexual Persons, secs.7-8.
<35>:Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Churchon the Pastoral Care of
Homosexual Persons, sec. 3.
<36>:Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of
Homosexual Persons, secs.3-8; cf. Family, Marriage, and ‘De Facto’ Unions, sec.13.
<37>:Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of
Homosexual Persons, sec. 7.
‘<38>:Pope accused of stoking homophobia after he equates homosexuality to
climate change’; http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith/article
’<39>:Lambeth I.10’ refers to the controversial Resolution I.10 Human Sexuality
passed by the Lambeth Conference of pan-Anglican bishops in 1998. It reads as
1. commends to the Church the subsection report on human sexuality;
2. in view of the teaching of Scripture upholds faithfulness in marriage between
a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for
those who are not called to marriage;
3. recognizes that there are among us persons who experience themselves as having
a homosexual orientation. Many of these are members of the Church and are seeking
the pastoral care, moral direction of the Church, and God’s transforming power for
the living of their lives and the ordering of relationships. We commit ourselves
to listen to the experience of homosexual persons and we wish to assure them that
they are loved by God and that all baptised, believing and faithful persons,
regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ;
4. while rejecting homosexual practice as compatible with Scripture, calls on all
our people to minister pastorally and sensitively to all irrespective of sexual
orientation and to condemn irrational fear of homosexuals, violence within
marriage and any trivialisation and commercialisation of sex;
5. cannot advise the legtimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining
those involved in same-gendered unions;
6. requests the Primates and the ACC to establish means of monitoring the work
done on the subject of human sexuality in the Communion and to share statements
and resources among us;
7. notes the significance of the Kuala Lumpur Statement on Human Sexuality and
the concerns expressed in resolutions IV.26, V.1, V.10, V.23 and V.35 on the
authority of Scripture in matters of marriage and sexuality and asks the Primates
and the ACC to include them in their monitoring process.’