religion

First published in the author’s syndicated column on June 27, 2002

Last week I was invited to give a talk on homosexuality at the Lawrence Livermore National Research Laboratory, which is a nuclear weapons research facility just southeast of San Francisco. (Apparently San Francisco has a dearth of experts on homosexuality, so they need to fly them in from Detroit. Who knew?)

One might wonder, as I did, why they would want a talk on homosexuality at a nuclear weapons research facility. Why not a talk on, say, wartime ethics, or nuclear disarmament, or racial profiling in national security initiatives — all topics which I, as an ethics professor, am eminently qualified to blather on about. But since they asked for the gay talk and since I wasn’t about to turn down a free trip to California, the gay talk is what they got.

My talk, which was perspicuously (if uncreatively) titled “Homosexuality, Morality, and Diversity,” was attended by roughly 100 rather serious-looking scientists and engineers. (Since these people are responsible for overseeing enough radioactive material to eliminate entire continents, I found their seriousness reassuring.) The lecture went well, and the Q-and-A session was relatively tame, with predictable questions about gays in the military (“Yes, I’ve dated some”) and the Boy Scouts (“James Dale still hasn’t called, but when he does…). One thoughtful senior official asked, “You must find it rather draining to have to deal with these horrible, homophobic arguments day after day as part of your work — how do you do it?” (Answer: I drink.)

One former Eagle Scout introduced herself — yes, herself — after the talk: She was a male-to-female transsexual who transitioned while an employee at Livermore. Her story and others made it increasingly clear why they wanted a talk on sexual diversity at a nuclear weapons research facility.

The most challenging part of the visit, however, was not my talk before the general audience but my earlier lunch meeting with the LGBTA employee group. As is often the case (I’ve been doing these talks for ten years) the hardest questions and liveliest controversy came during the “friendly fire.” Unexpectedly, I found myself in the strange position of being a gay atheist who was defending the religious right (in a sense).

It happened when one of the luncheon attendees — a pregnant lesbian physicist whose partner was also an employee — complained about the employee Bible-study group. “Their problem,” she stated bluntly, “is that they want to impose their values on other people. That’s the difference between our groups — we believe in ‘just the facts’ while they want to push values.”

I could not agree with her description, and I said as much. For in just a short while I would be giving a talk in which I intended to “push values”: values of tolerance, fairness, and diversity. I wasn’t going to present “just the facts” — I was going to argue that people ought to behave a certain way in light of those facts. In other words, I was going to moralize.

The word “moralize” tends to turn people off, and with good reason — it’s typically associated with the likes of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Dr. Laura. In rejecting their brand of moralizing, it is tempting for us to reject moralizing altogether. As the saying goes, “Morality is strictly a private matter.”

But this saying is patently false, and the sooner we acknowledge that fact, the better. Morality is about how we treat one another — and that’s very much a matter for public concern. It’s about fairness and justice. It’s about what matters to us — not just as a personal preference, but as a standard for public behavior.

When I say that society’s treatment of gays and lesbians is wrong, I’m making a moral claim. I am telling people how they should live: They should accept their gay sons and lesbian daughters; they should be welcoming toward their LGBT neighbors; they should support our civil rights. They ought to do these things because they’re the morally right things to do.

The problem with the religious right is not that they push values. The problem is that they push the wrong values: valuing conformity more than diversity; obedience more than freedom. Let us not concede the moral sphere to them. Or the nuclear weapons. (Transsexual Eagle-scout physicists, unite!)

Read more

First Published in “Between the Lines.” March 28, 2002

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO I was a candidate for the Roman Catholic priesthood. One night during a candidate retreat I was alone in a monastery rec room with a youngish priest — let’s call him Fr. Jack — who was attempting to counsel me as I struggled with the difficult decision of whether to enter training that year. Fr. Jack, who seemed genuinely concerned about my emotional state, offered to give me a massage. The proposition was simultaneously strange and appealing, and I nervously accepted. He began with my back and proceeded slowly to cover virtually every inch of my body — except, notably, my genitals and buttocks. Fr. Jack then looked at me in an eager and suggestive manner and asked, “Is there any part of you that is still tense?” Quite uncomfortable at this point, I blurted, “Um, yes — my mind!” and then quickly gathered my shirt (which one of us had removed) and excused myself.

The current pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church reminded me of this event. I do not mean to suggest that Fr. Jack was a pedophile. The massage, though sexual at some not-very-hidden level, was not tantamount to sex. More to the point, I was about eighteen years old at the time — not a child, and not incapable of granting or withholding consent. But the story involves a number of issues that have been raised, often confusedly, in discussions of the ongoing scandal: priestly sexuality; priestly homosexuality; authority, secrecy, and vulnerability.

The scandal by now is familiar to anyone paying attention. In brief, there has been a disproportionately high incidence of sexual abuse among Roman Catholic priests, and the Church hierarchy have been going to great lengths to cover it up. These things by themselves would be bad enough, but in fact it’s worse: Not only have the hierarchy covered up the scandal, but they have repeatedly reassigned known pedophiles to posts which put them in contact with children. These reassignments are perhaps the most inexplicable aspect of the scandal. The pedophilia can be explained (to an extent) as a psychological disorder combined with moral weakness. The cover-up can be explained as a misguided attempt at damage-control. (To say that these two things can be explained is not to say that they should be excused — both involve culpable behavior.) But the reassignments are sheer reckless stupidity. The current priest-shortage notwithstanding, there are plenty of posts within the church that do not involve youth ministry. (Next time you’re in Church, consider the ratio of blue hair to baseball caps and you’ll see what I mean.) If these known pedophiles were to be reassigned at all (and that’s a big “if”), why not restrict them to working with older parishioners?

The Vatican’s response to this and other difficult questions has been — you guessed it — to change the subject and scapegoat gays. In a recent interview Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls contended that most of the sexual abuse cases involved teenage boys, not children, and thus did not really constitute pedophilia. He then inferred that gays must be unfit for the priesthood: “People with [homosexual] inclinations just cannot be ordained,” he concluded, suggesting that ordinations of gay men should perhaps be invalidated.

Navarro-Valls’ proposal, if implemented, would eliminate about half of the priests in the United States. (As a former candidate who spent a lot of time with priests and seminarians, I can confirm that this oft-repeated estimate is a reasonable one.) But does his argument for the proposal work? Even supposing (what seems likely from the reports) that the majority of the victims have been male, Navarro-Valls’ conclusion doesn’t follow. For the question to ask is not what percentage of sexual abusers are gays, but rather, what percentage of gays are sexual abusers. Consider an analogy: The vast majority of rapists are male. But it does not follow (and it is not true, pace Andrea Dworkin) that the vast majority of males are rapists. Thus, eliminating males from a given population would not be a fair or appropriate way of curtailing rape. Analogously, even if most sexual abusers within the priesthood were gay, it would not follow that most gays within the priesthood were sexual abusers. Eliminating gays from the priesthood would be horribly unjust to the vast majority of gay priests, who are innocent of sexual abuse and as horrified by it as the rest of us.

Thus, Navarro-Valls’ point about gays is a red herring. It is one thing to be attracted to persons of the same sex; it is quite another to be inclined to abuse persons of the same sex, be they children or otherwise. Conflating these distinctions not only slanders gays, it misdirects our attention away from the real problem, which is sexual abuse. Such scapegoating is a familiar tactic, sadly, and it is morally repugnant — far more so, I would contend, than the clumsy advances of Fr. Jack when I was eighteen.

Which brings me back to the age issue. Navarro-Valls is correct that in some of the cases, pedophilia is not the real problem. (It is difficult to know the percentages, since the Church has been stubbornly uncooperative in releasing data.) There’s a big difference — legally, psychologically, morally — between sex with an eight-year-old and sex with a seventeen-year-old. Cases of the latter type, which often involve seminarians and seminary candidates, may be an abuse of power and a violation of priestly vows, but they are not pedophilia.

Eliminating gays from the priesthood would, indeed, eliminate many of these latter cases. But it would also eliminate a good many decent priests, and needlessly so. For the real culprit here is not homosexuality, but rather the Church’s refusal to address the issue of sexuality directly and realistically. Human beings are sexual, and priests are no exception. Celibacy is demanding, and repression and denial are not helpful in mastering it. If the Church is serious about addressing sexual misconduct, it should focus on healthy ways for its priests to manage their sexuality, which does not disappear once they take vows.

Fr. Jack is a prime example, and my memory of him reminds me of the saying “There but for the grace of God go I.” Had I decided during that retreat to enter religious life, I would have done so as an eighteen-year-old with no sexual or romantic experience to speak of. I would have been thrust into an all-male environment where I would be forbidden not only to have sex but also to masturbate. And sooner or later my sexuality would have asserted itself — doubtlessly in the awkward manner characteristic of the sexually immature. Perhaps I, too, would have eventually found myself attracted to a naive and fresh-faced seminary candidate, and perhaps I too would have behaved like a creep. (For the record, I decided to enter when I was nineteen and then withdrew almost immediately, correctly believing that I needed more “life experience.”) Navarro-Valls’ scapegoating of gays doesn’t solve such problems; it perpetuates them — while ignoring far more serious ones. It is time for the Church to worry less about protecting its image and more about protecting the people it serves.

Read more

First appeared in the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review, November 30, 1996

GAY RIGHTS ADVOCATES sometimes suggest that if the Bible condemns homosexuality, so much the worse for the Bible. Yet that position hardly works for everyone. Many people maintain that the Bible is the true word of God, and not all who do are die-hard homophobes. Some are social liberals who feel torn between their political and their religious convictions. Others are gay and lesbian youth who feel forced to choose between being gay and following God. To tell such people “so much the worse for the Bible” seems counterproductive, even cruel.

But what is the alternative? Is it possible to affirm the truth of the Bible yet deny the anti-gay conclusions the Church has drawn from it for centuries? To answer that question, I want to explore another case where the Church has re-interpreted Scripture: usury. For centuries the Church used the Bible to condemn the lending of money for interest — for any interest, not just excessive interest. Today it has more money in the bank than many major corporations. And its explanation for this shift — that cultural changes render the Biblical prohibitions inapplicable — works just as well for homosexuality as for interest banking.

The Bible condemns usury in no uncertain terms. In the Book of Exodus God says “if you lend money to my people, to the poor among you. you shall not exact interest from them” (22: 25). The fifteenth Psalm says that those who lend at interest may not abide in the Lord’s tent or dwell on his holy hill (1-5). Ezekiel compares usury to adultery, robbery, idolatry, and bribery, and asks whether he who “takes advanced or accrued interest; shall he then live? He shall not. He. shall surely die; his blood shall be upon him.” (18: 10-13; see also Deut. 23:19, Lev. 25: 35-37, Neh. 5: 7-10, Jer. 15:10, Ezek. 22: 12, and Luke 6:35)

The Biblical case against usury does not stand alone. Plato and Aristotle condemned the practice, as did Aristophanes, Cato, Seneca, and Plutarch. So did Saints Anselm, Augustine, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Jerome, and Ambrose, citing both Scripture and natural law. Numerous church councils and synods forbade usury: for instance, at the Third Council of Lateran (1179 C.E.), Pope Alexander III declared that both the Old and New Testaments condemn it and that violators should be excommunicated. Subsequent popes repeated these sanctions. In 1745, in the encyclical Vix Pervenit, Benedict XIV pronounced that “any gain which exceeds the amount the creditor gave is illicit and usurious.” Protestant opponents of usury included Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, and Urlich Zwingli. Nor is this condemnation unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition: the Qur’an condemns usury as well (2: 275, 3: 130). In short, the case against usury, like the case against homosexuality, appears to have strong biblical, philosophical, patristic, ecclesiastical, and theological grounds.

So what happened? Did the Church suddenly realize that it was missing out on something lucrative, and thus rescind its earlier prohibition? Not surprisingly, Church leaders offer a quite different explanation. According to them, economic conditions have changed substantially since Biblical times, such that usury no longer has the same consequences as it did when the prohibitions were issued. Therefore, those prohibitions no longer apply. As Father Richard McBrien, former chair of the University of Notre Dame theology department, writes,

The teaching on usury changed because certain theologians in the sixteenth century concluded that economic conditions had changed, making the old condemnations obsolete, and that the experience of lay Christians had to be listened to. Thus, Navarrus (d. 1586), a professor at Salamanca in Spain and author of a Manual for Confessors, argued that an “infinite number of decent Christians” were engaged in exchange-banking, and he objected to any analysis which would “damn the whole world”

McBrien’s example of Navarrus is helpful here, for it shows how the Church’s pastoral experience influenced its understanding of Scripture. Faced with otherwise “decent Christians” engaging in a traditionally forbidden practice, the Church re-examined the earlier prohibitions and found that they depended on conditions that no longer held.

Yet are we not today in a similar position regarding homosexuality? Even Christian traditionalists have begun to recognize that the stereotype of all gays as corrupt, hedonistic, sex-crazed heathens is unsupportable. On the contrary, many gay and lesbian relationships appear loving, nurturing, and fulfilling. As Richard B. Hays, a Methodist professor of New Testament at Duke University, points out, “There are numerous homosexual Christians whose lives show signs of the presence of God, whose work in ministry is genuine and effective. How is such experiential evidence to be assessed?”

Hays is appealing to a familiar Biblical principle here: “By their fruits ye shall know them” (Matt. 7:20). Surprisingly, however, he ultimately concludes that homosexual relationships are immoral. I suggest that Hays, and countless other theologians like him, have dropped the ball. They notice that many gay and lesbian relationships manifest themselves as good, but then opt for the prohibitions of Scripture over the evidence of their own experience. What they fail to notice is that the Church’s history on usury provides a way out of this apparent dilemma.

Consider the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans, perhaps the most problematic text for gay and lesbian advocates. Paul writes of Gentiles who have given themselves up to “dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons due penalty for their error” (1:26-7).

It seems fairly clear that Paul viewed such acts as a sign and consequence of the Fall. (Some, like John Boswell and William Countryman, have argued that Paul’s use of “unnatural” — para physin — carries no moral force. My argument does not require this conclusion, but if it is true, so much the better.) Granting (for the sake of argument) that Paul morally condemned such relationships, must contemporary Christians condemn homosexual relationships as well? Not necessarily. Suppose that in Paul’s time homosexual relationships were typically exploitative, paganistic, or pederastic — as virtually all scholars would agree. If Paul condemned homosexuality because it had such features, but such features are no longer typical, then Paul’s condemnation no longer applies. Substantial changes in cultural context have altered the meaning and consequences — and thus the moral value — of homosexual relationships. Put another way, using the Bible’s condemnations of homosexuality against contemporary homosexuality is like using its condemnations of usury against contemporary banking.

This context-sensitive approach preserves not only the inerrancy of the Bible but also the authenticity of experience. For the religious believer, both are important: surely the Creator of all things reveals himself in lived experience as well as ancient texts. Indeed, to accept the text at face value while ignoring the evidence of experience would be to betray a rather impoverished view of revelation — one that has been rejected by centuries of official Church teaching.

But does this approach leave any room for mystery or for faith? If we need only consult experiential evidence to determine God’s will, of what use is the Bible? I have not suggested, however, that we need only consult experiential evidence; I have merely suggested that experiential evidence, like Biblical evidence, is an important source of revelation. Nor have I denied that Biblical evidence may contradict experiential evidence and thus result in mystery. In this case, however, the contradiction is merely apparent. There is still room for mysteries of faith; this just happens not to be one of them.

The usury analogy also provides a better model for re-interpretation than do the more commonly cited issues of divorce and slavery. The Biblical case against divorce is at least as strong as that against homosexuality; indeed, Jesus forcefully condemns divorce (Matt. 5: 31-32) but never mentions homosexuality. This fact is startling when one considers how many advocates of “traditional Christian values” — Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, and Phil Gramm, for instance — are divorced. Perhaps they consider divorce a one-time failure as opposed to an inveterate sin (though Jesus, who likened divorce to adultery, apparently disagrees). Or perhaps they accept an argument similar in strategy to the usury argument: divorce during Jesus’s time had disastrous social consequences for women that it no longer has; thus, the Biblical condemnations are obsolete. The problem with the divorce analogy is many fundamentalists maintain that those who divorce and remarry are inveterate sinners, just as Jesus’s words suggest.

By contrast, virtually no one wants to maintain the Bible’s approval of slavery. Nevertheless, the Bible’s position appears clear: Leviticus states, “You may acquire slaves from the pagan nations that are around you” (25:44). St. Paul writes, “Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ” (Eph. 6:5). Are such pronouncements (and many more like them) context-specific in a way that renders them inapplicable today?

Many believers think so. They argue that during Biblical times slavery was significantly different from its antebellum American form; specifically, Biblical masters were much kinder to their slaves. This argument concedes that cultural context is relevant to interpretation, and thus buttresses the case in favor of homosexuality. But it also concedes that under some certain circumstances human beings may own one another — a repugnant conclusion. Some believers try to avoid this conclusion by noting that according to St. Paul, “there is no longer slave or free” (Gal. 3:28). Yet this response also buttresses the pro-gay case, for the same passage says, “there is no longer male and female.” Erase that distinction, and homosexuality becomes a non-issue.

Perhaps the slavery example shows that the revisionist approach — or at least, the assumption that the Bible is inerrant — inevitably leads to absurdity. Perhaps it is time for gay rights advocates to bite the bullet and say, “Look, the Bible’s just wrong sometimes.” For those unprepared to make that concession, the Church’s stance on usury suggests a useful and coherent alternative.

Read more