Monday, December 28, 2009

A Question of Truth

Works of theology, particularly Catholic theology, are generally not my thing. And, despite having found a book of said theology engaging and informative, they are not likely to become my thing: far too much concern with unwarranted premises and leaning on obscure, gnomic texts.

Still, I greatly enjoyed reading A Question of Truth: Christianity and Homosexuality by the late Gareth Moore OP. It’s one of the few books I have read that made me feel that I particularly wanted to meet the author. The authorial voice is one of humility and careful truth seeking. Very much what being a Dominican is supposed to be about.

The book sums itself up very well in the final paragraph:
The conclusion of this book is, therefore, not that it is good to be gay, but that it is irrational for serious, reflective Christians … to accept church teaching on homosexuality. … This is not a matter of dissent or materialism; it is simply that the church at the moment produces no good arguments to assent to. Regrettably, in this area, the church teaches badly. (p.282)
The book is very Thomistic in its careful argument and its layered analytical approach (even if I am wrong on this, there is still the problem that … ). Containing careful analysis of key concepts (for example, the different types of authority; the importance of intensionality; that the key question being whether a tradition is true), followed by chapters on the relevant Old Testament and New Testament texts, claims about the ‘Biblical approach’ to sexuality, the natural law philosophy of Aquinas, current arguments in Vatican documents and the better modern arguments. Despite the modest claims of the author, the book provides very good coverage of the theological arguments within the Catholic tradition.
While Fr Moore brings out the difficulties of Biblical exegesis, I thought the discussion of the relevant Biblical texts (Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22 & 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, Timothy 1:10) was the weakest part of the book, since there did seem to be an element of “straining at gnats” to avoid reading in condemnations of homosexual acts as such.

Reading the Sodom & Gomorrah story as being about rape and inhospitality is straightforward – as Fr Moore says, condemning homosexual rape no more condemns homosexuality than condemning heterosexual rape condemns heterosexuality. That Leviticus on sex is about maintaining distinct gender roles (and hierarchy) is clearly true. But the condemnation of guys having sex with each other is also fairly clear. That the Old Testament is equally against, for example, oyster-eating, is also true: using Leviticus as an authority against homosexual acts while ignoring its other strictures (and its insistence that all its rules be followed) does require such extreme selectivity as to be intellectually unconscionable.

Fr Moore’s discussion of the New Testament texts I found informative though what I was mainly left with was the problem of obscurity: particularly as Paul uses a term – arsenokoitai – which may be his own coinage.

Where Fr Moore really shines is requiring arguments to deal with gays as people, not projections (indeed, typically, belittling and ignorant projections: though Fr Moore is far too polite to say so in so many words). By simply treating homosexuals as real, and full, people he reveals quite starkly how blithely Vatican documents—and those who provide arguments to support them—make all sorts of claims about how things are without empirical warrant.

If you had any suspicion that the Vatican might have good arguments on homosexuality for its claims, this is an excellent book for showing it does not. But, then, we are talking about an institution which only allows those who don’t have families and officially don’t engage in sex to make definitive statements on the morality of families and sexuality: a bit like getting blind folk to design spectacles – they can intellectually grasp the issues, but their perspective is going to tend to be skewed in common, and reinforcing, ways.

(And, as an aside, a group of celibate males officially lacking the experience of being lovers or parents are probably going to be less than reliable in putting protecting children at the forefront of dealing with predatory fellow-priests rather than protecting the authority of the priesthood.)

The Catholic claim that the only proper purpose of sex is to produce babies is patent nonsense which almost no-one genuinely believes: just consider all the heterosexual activity that thereby becomes sinful. It certainly does not accord with the rather wider functions of sex in nature. Not even the Church consistently maintains it, as it does not ban infertile male-female married couples from having sex but instead engages in fairly heroic casuistry whereby it is alright if the right form is followed however inherently un-reproductive a particular act might be.

And getting blind folk who, deep down, aren’t interested in genuinely investigating the experience of people with particular needs in spectacles to design spectacles: that is a sure recipe for producing nonsense. Which Fr Moore very politely shows they do.

ADDENDA This post has been amended for clarity.

1 comment:

  1. Considering "the book" was written by a group (a tribe?) in exile and intended to encourage pride and unity in the face of extinction by assimilation it has a certain internal logic.
    This is not only a creation story but the history of a small tribe struggling to find a home and the leaders knew they must increase in size and live in harmony to survive. If you read it as set of instructions to help achieve this goal it makes more sense. Exclusively homosexual activity does not help increase the population, the device of Onan was not masturbation but withdrawal before ejaculation. For harmony you should not kill members of the group, steal their property (wives, asses etc) or lie about them. For health reasons you don't eat oysters, pigs or prawns because they are all excrement eaters, in a hot, dry and dusty climate circumcision could be a good idea. As the rest of the stories show this only applies to the in-group, the other are the enemy. And, to enhance unity you all live under the laws of the one G_D.
    The real problems start about three hundred years after the book was written when instead of history it became the absolute revealed truth.