The Infallible

Religion, Social Issues

The Pope’s recent words about his view on homosexuality were, as always, confusing. He attempts to be inclusive by saying that he is not the one to judge anyone who identifies as gay. The message from the Catholic Church is to condemn the acts of homosexuality but not the person, very much like the “hate the sin, love the sinner” message from the protestant tradition.

First, I fail to see how one would separate all of the homosexual acts from non-homosexual acts. In fact, some might consider a man kissing another man in any circumstance an act of gayness. But I understand that such things can happen in, say, Italy when two men greet and no one observing them would think they were necessarily expressing their homosexuality. Or consider how in the US, public bath houses are not popular, but you can go to places in Europe or Japan where they are and suddenly being in a public place completely naked with other people of the same sex, all sharing a gigantic bath, is somehow not so gay.

How might Christians determine what are homosexual acts so that they can identify what human sexual activity is abhorrent (or as the JSB puts it, obnoxious) to God? It’s difficult to find explicit references to homosexuality in the Bible, but the most direct one would appear to be in Leviticus and Romans:

If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death—their bloodguilt is upon them. Lev. 20:13, Jewish Study Bible (2004)

As a result God has given them up to shameful passions. Among them women have exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and men too, giving up natural relations with women, burn with lust for one another; males behave indecently with males, and are paid in their own persons the fitting wage of such perversion. Rom. 1:17, Oxford Study Bible (1992)

If you dive even further into these passages, you will find a wealth of translation debates. Were the writers referring to specific acts? Are words that refer to “sexual immorality” always to be assumed to refer to homosexuality? Should we consider that at the time of authorship (whenever the heck that was) there was no kind of homosexual identity or lifestyle like we deal with in the present? The JSB notes that in the few places the Tanakh mentions anal intercourse, it is portrayed in a way that always connotes “humiliation, revenge, or subjection” It also points out that “[the Holiness code] views all sexual acts that are not potentially procreative as aberrant” (251-2).

Maybe it’s just easier for believers to associate anything that we generally understand today to be “homosexual” as an “abomination” to God. If that’s the case, then people who do this have to admit that they’ve made a decision among themselves, either with other people or individually, that they do not condone anything gay. But we should remember that there’s no unstained template of objective morality from which we get our own morality. Anything we find written down that talks about the beliefs of, for example, Christians cannot escape interpretation by humans. It is us, humans on earth, who are doing all the reading. We are the only ones we know of who are reading anything. If you’re religious and you read passages like the ones mentioned above, and you find them difficult to understand, you go to pastors, priests, spiritual leaders, etc. to ask that they aid you in interpreting. At any point in reading a text where you attempt to get more clarity, you always consult either other people directly or other works also made by people that try to elucidate the text.

My ultimate point is that it is not the text of the catechism or the various versions of the Bible that determine what Christians believe about homosexuality. It really comes down to people deciding for themselves whether or not they think something is bad or good, and other individuals may assist them in reaching an understanding. And no one lives in a vacuum. Your decisions are strongly based on how you interpret the myriad messages you are bombarded with every minute of every day. In the end, you might decide to go with the mainstream of Christianity and condemn homosexuality. Or you may read these texts and not be convinced that there are direct prohibitions to acts and views that the writers of the ancient texts did not anticipate, even though the texts and the church have evolved over time.

In the absence of the Bible having much to say about gay acts, the people reading the Bible will insist on certain interpretations. People higher up a latter of religious authority will have certain strong convictions and followers of the religion will react to it. At no point will you reach an absolute authority.

What say you?