Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Church and the Homosexual

If one is defending traditional Christian sexual ethics—the position that has dominated Christian teaching over the last two millennia—then one is defending the position that consenting homosexual acts are worse than rape. St Thomas Aquinas, Justinian and medieval (and later) (pdf) legal codes are all quite clear on this. "Sodomy" was punishable by such penalties as burning alive, being buried alive, drowned and hanged. Rape was often treated as a civil matter—the theft of a woman’s maidenhead, an offence against whoever was the responsible male in her life. Indeed, some penitentials (pdf) regarded homosexual acts as a worse sin than witchcraft, attracting a stronger penance, being about about the same level as (or occasionally worse than) murder.

Holding homosexual acts to be worse that rape is based on a reading of the sin of Sodom as being primarily about homosexuality, given that God does not destroy folk for raping women (e.g. Judges 19). Such a reading of Genesis 19 does, however, contradict that of Jesus and of the Hebrew Prophets generally.

Plenty of folk do, of course, claim to supporters of traditional Christian teaching on homosexuality. Almost no one nowadays, apart from a few fringe nutcases such as the Rev. Fred Phelps, actually is such. They merely defend the position that homosexual acts are sinful and homosexuals should either have sex against their nature (i.e. with women) or be celibate: the tradition lite.

Of course, rating homosexual acts as worse than rape was a decision reached amongst male theologians. Women have a bit more say nowadays. Methinks it shows.

A similar process is occurring with the position of homosexuals. They are getting a bit more say also. And outlooks are therefore changing. John McNeill’s The Church and the Homosexual has become a minor classic in the issue of homosexuality and Christianity. Originally published with Catholic Church authorisation when John McNeill was Father John McNeill SJ, it is now in its fourth (no longer Church authorised) edition, John McNeill is no longer a Jesuit and has had his priesthood withdrawn. So the book includes appendices covering (1) how his views have changed, (2) thoughts on pastoral care of people with HIV/AID and (3) a history of the publication of the book. In the preface for the fourth edition, he expresses his anger at Vatican intransigence, bigotry and deceit.
McNeill writes in his Epilogue (pp 196ff), that three theses:
have traditionally dominated the thinking of moral theologians concerning homosexuality.
They are:
that the homosexual condition, and subsequently all homosexual activity, is contrary to the will of God;
the presence of the homosexual in the human community is a menace to that community;
the love that which unites two homosexuals in a sexual union is a sinful love which separates them from the love of God.
The book is an argument for a reappraisal of all three theses. McNeill notes the importance of development of homosexual community and organisations and cites a new era of scholarly work (pp 15-16).

Part I covers the grounds for reappraisal, Part II positive homosexual contributions, Part III implications for pastoral ministry.

Much of the first Part is taken up with Scriptural analysis. Citing Bailey, McNeill argues that perversion is a sexual act against one’s nature (p.41). In discussing the sin of Sodom, he notes that the word to know (yadha) is used 943 times in the Old Testament, only 10 times without qualification to mean coitus, other than Genesis 19 and Judges 19:22. The term normally used in the Old Testament to denote forbidden sexual acts is shakhabh. Hence so we can know them might mean no more than “check their intentions” (p.43). McNeill is not convinced of the non-sexual content of the demand “to know” the guest of the Lord, citing the clear use of yadha in Genesis 19:7 to mean coitus and that the crime otherwise becomes too minor to spark God’s wrath (p.47), though he admits the Yahwist author may be deliberately playing on the ambiguity in the term.

McNeill notes that the various Old Testament references refer to pride, inhospitality, lack of generosity as the sin of Sodom. New Testament references (2 Peter and Jude) are to sexual transgression, but he argues it is about having sex with angels (p.46). McNeil notes the irony of the sin of Sodom being changed from inhospitality to “sodomy” and then being brutally inhospitable to homosexuals (p.50).

Mc Neil notes that, regarding the famous passage in Romans, there are plenty of other terms Paul could have used than arsenokoitai to refer clearly to general homosexual behaviour (p.52). He examines Paul’s use of the word physin or nature, fusing together custom and essential characteristic. In Romans 11:24 (McNeill says Romans 4:18) God himself acts para physin (against nature) (Pp53ff).

Mc Neil argues that, in the famous passage in Romans, St Paul’s real concern is idolatry. Of the people St Paul refers to, their homosexuality flows from their idolatry, not the other way around (p.57).

McNeill’s discussion of Scripture covers the relevant texts, but does so in a more tentative way than more recent discussions. Or perhaps it is a bit of a Catholic thing. Jordan, for example is a Catholic theologian and medievalist writing very much in the Catholic tradition. Jordan’s and McNeill’s critique of traditional Christian theology on same-sex activity is echoed by books by two ordained Protestant ministers who (unsurprisingly) largely ignore medieval writings and concentrate much more directly on Scripture. They are much more straightforward in their arguments.

Looking at the antipathy to homosexuals McNeill cites studies suggesting that fear of passivity, fear of loss of control is often behind it and that these are a barrier to learning (p.126). Not only about homosexuals, but also generally.

McNeil looks at various way homosexuality has been treated, quoting a comment from one study that:
We assume that heterosexuality is the biologic norm, and that unless interfered with all individuals are heterosexual
(p.129). (A denial of biological variety that is not grounded in how nature actually is.) I found I recognised some of myself in Jung’s sympathetic description of common traits of homosexuals (p.136).

McNeil argues that driving homosexuals to pretend at being heterosexuals, the ultimate manifestation of which is marrying, actually undermines marriage (p137). A point various (married) minister scandals regularly demonstrate. In a sense, that is precisely what Brokeback Mountain was about—two men who should have married each other marrying women, thereby making four people unhappy: opression and lies leading to more lies.

McNeil generalises about concerns about “proper” masculinity as being proneness to violence (p.140) using cases (anti-war marches) that might be construed as attack on community. He quotes a NSDAP letter attacking legalisation of homosexuality as emasculating fighting spirit (p.141). (Obviously, no one told the Nazis about the Spartans.)

McNeill notes that homosexuals are often attracted to service roles (p.143). Could be the “good little boy” aspect to counteract their "shameful urges", or their cognitively cross-matched nature. McNeill also cites a study (p.145) that found homosexuals superior to their heterosexual counterparts in autonomy, spontaneity, orientation towards the present and increased sensitivity towards the value of the peron. He argues that pressure from being discriminated against provides more intense quest for identity, purpose and meaning. (But simply being cognitively other from most folk around one may also naturally have that effect.) He cites St Paul in Galatians 3:28 about the elimination of divisions and seeking to be totally ourselves (p.147).

McNeill notes that, in terms of Catholic pastoral care, it is deemed to be worse for a homosexual to be in a loving same-sex relationship than being single and sexually active. The latter is merely various individual sins, the former is “a state of sin”. (This is, of course, the same as for cohabiting heterosexual couples: except they can get married.)

McNeill is seeking to get the Catholic Church to look at Scripture differently, to look at homosexuals, their lives and contributions differently, and accord them—and their loves and relationships—a genuine place. As his own personal history shows, the Church has been very far indeed from responsive. But The Church and the Homosexual is certainly a very worthy effort.


  1. Equality of homosexuals to heterosexuals: homosexuals have never been found wanting in any sector of society compared to heterosexuals. they are not less a friend, father, counselor, teacher, engineer, soldier, administrator, doctor, neighbor, brother, etc.

    There is separation between church and state in this country. Congress shall make no law honoring any religion, or any religious views.

    Homosexuality has been deemed legal in this country compared to heterosexuality and therefore legally must be given equal protection under the law for life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. What ever heterosexuals are entitled to, homosexuals must be given the same entitlement.

    Believers for 2000 years have attempted to say that the scriptures had declared homosexuality a sin, by adding their own stroke to the law(gen,matt), by making fraudulent transpositions into scripture(1corr,1tim), by assigning meaning to scriptural verses in spite of their words(romans), by assuming all prohibitions of the old testament were of themselves sins and attempting to apply them to the new covenant, to make regulation in the new covenant when in fact the new covenant is without regulation, unlike as is in the old covenant in deut. 28(romans,galatians,1corr).

    Jesus said "you will recognize them by their fruit".....the fruit of the spirit that is in their lives..........the fruit of the spirit of Christ is different than that of powers and principalities.(gal)

    The lives of single and married homosexual believers are filled with the fruit of the spirit in the same way as those of single and married heterosexual believers.

  2. the issue is deeper than the issue of homosexuality. the magisterium continues to make unchallengable laws for believers to be led by, because of understandings about a natural law. which means the catholic church still thinks that under the new covenant believers have a relationship to god thru regulation as in deut. 28 under the old covenant, instead of directly to the one who lives in each believer.
    when in fact apart from the 2nd commandment the new covenant is without regulation,(love your neighbor...........) the second commandment being a summation of the ENTIRE law.

    "all things are permissable, but not everything is contructive"

    in corinithians paul was saying about women teaching in church, that though it was permissable, he did not find it constructive in his churches.