(Swinburne University, Sunday 21st, October, 2012)
A detailed treatment on the Catholic Church’s stance with regard to “same sex marriage” would take much longer than 10 minutes. So we must be content with just a few observations – the rest can wait till question time.
Recently two articles about same-sex “marriage” appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics website. One by the Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine, and the other by a Christian, the retired High Court judge, Michael Kirby.
Both essays were about the way in which the Bible is used in the debate on today’s topic. Both articles spoke against a kind of scriptural hermeneutic that relies upon “proof texts”. As we all know, the problem with proof-texting is that it ignores the importance of context – historical and cultural as well as textual. In this, I – and the Catholic Church – would agree whole heartedly.
Nevertheless, in her essay, Dr Levine makes the blunt admission: even taken overall, rather than in isolated texts, the bible does not condone relationships which involve sexual activity between people of the same sex. That is a fact that no “bible believing” Christian can ignore. Not a few have attempted to ignore it, however. Matthew Vines, for instance, in his hour-long youtube lecture, goes to great lengths to offer interpretations of the classic Scriptural proof-texts against homosexuality that will fit his personal convictions. But this goes against the obvious grain of these ancient texts; the revisionists simply do not read the scriptures in good faith.
More honest is the approach of the retired Anglican bishop of Edinburgh who recently visited Australia and spoke on the ABC Radio National program, Big Ideas. In agreement with Dr Levine, Bishop Richard Holloway honestly recognises that the bible does not condone homosexual acts, but, he declared that “a lot of the values in those scriptures are ‘bronze age values’, … if you believe that your revealed Scripture is timelessly perfect in every regard then you’re stuck with these bronze age attitudes”.
And so it is important from the outset that I make some things quite clear.
Firstly, the Catholic Church’s understanding of homosexuality (and of sexuality in general and marriage in particular) derives from her theology of the human person. But this theology does not derive from Scriptural proof-texts. In so far as it is an understanding based on Scripture, we take the entire witness of Scripture into account.
Secondly, contrary to Protestant Christianity, for us ‘Scripture alone’ is not the sole norm and authority for all teaching on faith and morals. Scripture is a part – a central part – of Tradition. We read Scripture within Tradition.
Thirdly, Scripture and Tradition are read in dialogue with Reason. We value philosophy, both new and ancient – especially the kind of philosophy that is “realist” rather than “nominalist” (a bias which derives from the sacramental and incarnational character of our faith). Hence we also hold in high regard History and Science. In dialogue with Scripture and Tradition, these all contribute to our undesrtanding of what is true.
And, fourthly, Catholics actually believe in Truth. We do not share the relativism of our age. Some things are “true” and some things are “false”. This reflects our overwhelming confidence in God as the Creator, the “One Who Is”. Reality exists, truth exists and we are not the ones who determine what that is.
A short parable.
Imagine you are walking through a flat desert of sand, and you come across a scattered group of small isolated rocks in this flat landscape. They look untidy. How easy it would be to pick up these rocks, you think, and rearrange them in a way more pleasing to the eye.
You try to lift the first one, and find you can’t lift it. You try the next one, but when you try to move it, you find that it is larger and more deeply buried than it first appeared. The same goes for the others. You can’t move them, no matter how hard you try.
But you are undaunted. You plan to come back with some heavy industrial equipment to move them and construct your pleasing design.
What you don’t know know, and what you will only discover when you return with your front end loader and mining truck, is that these “scattered rocks” are actually a part of a huge subterranian mountain range, with only the tips sticking out of the sand.
That is a good image for how Catholic theology views the few scattered scripture texts condemning homosexual behaviour. They are not the basis of our theology of human sexuality. They are merely evidence of a much deeper and much more mysterious truth fundamental to (what has been called by Pope John Paul II) “the theology of the body” and (by Pope Benedict XVI) the “human ecology”.
You don’t have to move much Scriptural sand to find that throughout the Scriptures there is the basic assumption that God has ordered human sexuality towards (what the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls) “the matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, [and which] is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring” (1601). It is our conviction, that this ordering of society is necessary for human flourishing.
Now it may well be that this reflects “bronze age values”. The question is whether, for that reason, and that alone, these values must today be regarded as “out of date” or whether it reflects something fundamentally real, perennially true, of the human body, of human ecology.
C. S. Lewis expressed the issue well in his introduction to St. Athanasius’ De Incarnatione: “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”
Our age is rapidly developing its own unique outlook on marriage, but it is an undeniable fact that, as a covenant between a man and a woman, established for “the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring”, marriage is one of those “bronze age values” that has remained consistent in every age and every society – right up to our own – until the last decade or so.
Now, I freely recognise that not all “bronze age values” are good. As Lewis suggests, the Bronze Age, like every other age, was as “liable to make certain mistakes” as our Age or any other. Slavery, violence in the service of honour, the oppression of women, tribalism – these are “bronze age values” that are not in harmony with the true dignity of human beings. We know this from philosophy, from history, from science, and, yes, from Scripture and Tradition as well.
But just as equally, we ought not assume, that simply because something is ancient, that it is out-of-date.
So with regard to this particular “bronze age value” – the value of marriage between a man and a woman, and its ordering toward the good of spouses and procreation – we should ask: What makes us modern 21st Century westerners so certain that we are right and our forefathers and mothers were wrong that we can simply overthrow the entire perennial wisdom of the past on the matter of marriage?
In the film “Avatar”, the hero “Jake” goes blundering into the alien landscape causing mayhem and damage wherever he goes – not because he is a bad person or intends evil, but because he is simply ignorant. The Na’vi woman who rescues him – Neytiri – berates him: “You are a baby!” What a put down for a hardened marine! Jake has to learn about the Planet Pandora; he has to learn that everything is connected to everything else, and you can’t go ripping up this or that tree or moving this or that rock with your heavy machinery to get at your prize without upsetting the ecology of the whole planet.
One thing that our “Bronze Age” forefathers and foremothers had was wisdom. We moderns have a lot more knowledge than they did, but knowledge is not wisdom. We use our knowledge to control our environment and twist it to our will; the ancients had wisdom, they were in touch with nature, and wisdom taught them how to live in harmony with that reality.
It is interesting that the push for same-sex “marriage” comes from those who live in cities, where people are out of touch with nature. I grew up on a farm. Farmers know how things work, nature-wise, and no clever talk from the city will convince them otherwise. One thing I learned was that when you found a gate that was shut, you closed it behind you, even if you couldn’t see any stock in the paddock.
Which leads me to something the famous Catholic apologist, G. K. Chesterton, once wrote (The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic, chap. 4 (1929).):
“In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; …There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.
“This…rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease.”
Marriage – as a covenant between a man and a woman – was not invented by the Catholic Church. Nor does the Catholic Church base its teaching concerning homosexuality on a few scattered proof-texts from Scripture.
The Church simply recognises that the fundamental nature of human sexuality and society is ordered toward marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman for their own good and the good of the children they bear together. This is the way the world is. This is real. This is true. This is why the Church blesses marriages. This is why the Church defends marriage. This is why we cannot sit by and idly watch the modern reformers tear down the estate of marriage and replace it with an edifice of their own construction simply because they do not understand the meaning and mystery of this particular perennial “bronze age value”.
Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission,
Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne