Here in Rome, where church officials are preparing for the opening of the extraordinary synod on marriage and family today, the mood is high, and many people here are saying, that it’s really difficult to say what the outcome of the meeting will be. There is much hope for change in many of the issues concerning marriage, family, sexuality, but many people are saying that the composition of the synod participants, the fact that the process of this synod–including the request for input from the laity–and how influential in which direction Pope Francis will be all make it difficult to predict outcomes.
One bishop’s voice was heard loudly and clearly in Rome in the last few days, not by church leaders, but by Catholic LGBT people and ally advocates. Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, a retired auxiliary of Sydney, Australia, spoke at the Ways Of Love conference on pastoral care with LGBT people, about which we posted yesterday. The gathering in Rome was to discuss new possible approaches to LGBT people that the synod could take. Bishop Robinson, who many readers may remember spoke at New Ways Ministry’s Seventh National Symposium in 2012, outlined a new approach to sexual ethics for the Church that would recognize the goodness and holiness of same-sex committed relationships. His talk was a highlight of the conference, and I will try to outline some of the main points below.
Bishop Robinson began by dismantling some of the crippling assumptions that underline current church teaching, most particularly the idea that sexual sins are among the most grievous that humans might commit:
“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. In this field, it was held, there are no venial sins. . . .
“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.”
Robinson also objected to the presumption that the Church’s sexual ethics should be based on judging the solely of sexual acts:
“. . . [T]he 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.”
Focusing in on lesbian and gay sexuality in particular, Robinson challenged the presumption of “natural law theory” opposing same-gender relationships:
“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 bishop began an outline of a new basis for sexual ethics, based more on the teachings of Jesus than on any other outside philosophical theory. He began this section of his talk by quoting Scripture:
“ ‘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?”
After critiquing a reigning ethic of sex in the contemporary world that only cautions people to “do no harm,” Bishop Robinson supplies an ethic based more on the commandment to love our neighbor:
“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? . . . .
“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.”
To catch all of Bishop Robinson’s nuances, examples, and explanations, I urge all who are interested in this topic to read his entire text which can be found on the conference’s website. You will be enriched by reading all of Bishop Robinson’s nuances, examples, and explanations, as well as additional arguments.
As the synod opens today, I pray that other bishops will listen to voices like Bishop Robinson’s, whose approach to all sexuality is so rooted in the teachings of Jesus.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry