How Catholic Moral Teaching On Sexuality is Evolving

Below is part 4 of a series of posts presenting excerpted videos and transcripts of an interview I conducted October 14, 2012 with my college best friend John Hazlet, whose struggles with doubt and depression were instrumental in my personal deconversion. (The full two part interview is here and here.) At the time of our interview John was a Benedictine monk, publicly discussing his homosexuality and struggles with mental illness. In June of 2013, John left the monastery. He is in a relationship with a man. He remains a Catholic. In the segment of our interview excerpted and transcribed below, John talks about the slow process of changing its views on sexuality that he sees the Catholic Church undergoing.

Dan Fincke: So, the problem I have, to kind of turn theological about this, and philosophical… and so I’m going to lay out, like, my problem with viewing homosexuality as sinful. And then hopefully you can explain to me what you take Church teaching to be, and what you take to be within… like, ways you think it could be improved within… consistency with the Catholic tradition, not burning it down. And, you know, your own interpretation of this. But to me, there’s a couple of issues here, and it’s that it seems unreasonable to believe that there’s a perfectly good God who gives people, desires that are connected to their… that we experience in human nature, we experience psycho-sexual love, romantic love, this entire part of ourselves as not just a sliver, you know, not just an interest on the level of whether or not you like sports or something. But it seems to be one of the fundamental contributors to our sense of identity, our sense of who we are, and for many of us, our fundamental sense of happiness. And so it’s all rooted here in the psycho-sexual, romantic feelings we have and desires we have; a great number of us couple, a great number of us long for that, or feel lonely or incomplete without that.

And so this is a fundamental part of human nature, and it seems perverse to interpret that there is both an omni-benevolent, omnipotent deity who’s creating these sexual desires, manifestly creates homosexual desires; not just creates them as some sexual quirk or picadillo, but as something that could be and often is conceived of as fundamental to identity, or fundamental to the way that they can have fullest, most maximal sexual and psychological and identity and social fulfillment, emotional fulfillment. Like, the way that for straight people there’s this feeling that psycho-sexual or romantic love is socially, emotionally socially, individually, psychologically, identity-wise fundamental to who they are and their actualization; saying for many people who have homosexual attractions, that they’re both homoerotic and homoromantic and core. And so the question is how such a being… if there were such a being, and we were to look for our good in terms of Nature, as the Catholic Church claims to do… Well then, moving on from thirteenth century categories of nature, in the twenty-first century understanding … we think that nature… by nature many people will be happier this way, regardless of whether or not it’s a fixed and determinate choice, or fixed and determinate identity, you know, um, choice that’s made for them by their biology and psychology, or even were it something that there could be a social dimension to… to owning and working within, and becoming more of a “choice,” it’s still something that for many people is the most fulfilling way of life.

And so to say that we’re going to infer that there’s a good God who wants only good for people, it would seem that such a God would have to endorse that kind of love, and that the judgments of… you know, pre B.C. tribesmen who were dealing with way different physical conditions, and not understanding their bodies, not understanding science, not understanding nature, not understanding the cause of [harms], that they make in the book of Leviticus a judgment, “This is evil”, is irrelevant or that a thirteenth century, um, monk, no offense, you know, would make the judgment that this was unnatural; that these sorts of things should be irrelevant, that we should look at the ways that when people with homosexual feelings and inclinations own the identity, own that social nature, own that sexuality, own that love, that can be… that is their most fulfilling route to happiness. And that to… that if there were such a good God, that he would have to approve of that, and not approve of all of the demonization of homosexuality, not approve of a book that claims it’s sinful and deserving of death, when these things lead to suicide, when these things lead to ostracization, alienation from their sexuality, alienation from this basic love drive in human nature. That doesn’t seem like a God of love and a God of nature and a God of… you know, who gives good commands… that he would write such a book, or permit its writing, permit his seal of approval on that book, or that he would have any parti–you know, a theological tradition that demonizes homosexuality.

And so, to me, I don’t see how you can reconcile, quite frankly, either being a Catholic and owning these desires, as much as I want you to, and, you know, and owning this nature. And I don’t understand that you could conceive of a good God who could give you a nature that would force you into disowning it. Even if there were a few people who could have a richer life by some inverted route, by going this monastic route, and being a self-denier, he’s made way too many people, apparently, God would have made way too many people who are gay, for all of them to be cloistered, and all of them to be denying this fundamental part of their natures. So how do you reconcile this?

Bede (John) Hazlet: Well, that’s a large question, and a many-layered one, so I’ll do my best to try and address what I see as the various layers. First, I think you’re probably thinking of a thirteenth century friar, rather than a thirteenth century monk, but [laughing] I’ll let that go for now. There is a difference. We’ve been around longer, but I don’t want to be prideful about it. I guess…

Dan Fincke: Well I’m sure the monks also agreed with him here. [laughs]

Bede (John) Hazlet: They did. Um. Everything I want to say about this, I want to couch in the context of the acknowledgement that Catholicism is a living tradition, it’s not monolithic. This is something that people who you might regard as to the left and to the right of the Catholic spectrum would agree on. It’s part of the essence of what it means to be Catholic. The Catholic Church today is not the church of the apostles in the first century. It’s developed since then, and it’s continuing to develop. But its development can’t really be predicted by any one Catholic or any group within the Church. So let me just say that by way of overarching background. Then let me say that what I take to be the Catholic understanding of scripture, doesn’t really allow the sort of proof texting of scripture that you’re alluding to, where you say, “Well, look, it says here in Leviticus that this is evil, so that’s that.” I think even Leviticus is probably a bit more nuanced.

But in Catholic understanding of scripture as a kind of inspired text as something disclosing God, there’s an insistence that you have to take every part seriously, but you also have to take the whole seriously. And you can’t take the whole seriously outside the context of the tradition in which it’s enmeshed, a tradition which is continuing to develop. The development didn’t stop with the conclusion of the composition of the New Testament documents, for example. So there’s a sense of development even with the scripture itself, and then an insistence that that development continued after scripture was stopped being composed, and continues into our own time. I think, for me, that’s one of the most compelling aspects of the Catholic tradition, this sense of ongoing development. So that’s quite important, I think.

It’s also important to acknowledge what you said about the Catholic aspiration to wanting to think in terms of Nature. It’s part of Catholic theology that God has disclosed things about who God is, and how God relates to the human race, and the rest of the cosmos. But there are also things that you can know without having access to revelation of any kind, and what the Catholic church would regard as some basic ethical truths should be accessible by reason whether you’re Catholic or Christian or not. But the church itself places itself within this debate in that sort of way, by saying, in arguing what we’re going to argue, we’re not appealing to anything that’s exclusively ours. We should be appealing to things that are shared by the human race as a whole. And if we’re not, if we slip into special pleading, we’re making a mistake here, in terms of our doing of moral theology.

There are aspects of the Catholic understanding of ethics that are distinctively Christian, that the Church doesn’t expect other people to share. But its basic outlook on sexuality, I don’t think fall in that category, it’s something it sees as accessible to reasonable debate within or outside the Church. That, too, is important. And that’s played itself out in various concrete ways, not just where morals and sexuality are concerned, but where theology and philosophy are concerned. And in the early centuries, the Church heavily appropriated Plotinus and other Neoplatonic sources. In the thirteenth century, as you mentioned, the Church heavily appropriated amid much controversy Aristotelian insights. More recently, the Church, especially in European theology, has appropriated insights from phenomenology and existentialism and so forth.

So there is an essential openness to the appropriation of insight from outside the world of the baptized that is important, and that has an effect even on the Church’s teaching about sexuality, which I’ll get to in a minute. But what I want to emphasize, paradigmatically, I guess, is that this process of appropriation, it takes a long time, and is worked out in terms of tensions between poles, you might say, that can become quite heated, even rancorous, with the people on… the people representing each pole that I’m trying to describe, tending to propose what they’re proposing as definitive, though the overarching reality is that neither concretely polarized side is definitive. They’re both moving toward a more definitive, but still not completely definitive synthesis that will emerge in time. And you’ll have to excuse my pop-Hegelianism there [laughs], but that is how I think about this.

So, in our own time when it comes to this question of sexuality, often the Church is accused of maintaining a basically medieval outlook on sexuality. But I think what people who tend toward conservatism and toward progressivism both often fail to recognize, is that the Church’s official take on human sexuality today, actually represents a major twentieth century shift in terms of the basic approach to how sexuality is seen. Something that came to explicit articulation with the Second Vatican Council, but that was brewing for some time before that.

The idea of concupiscence is a big part of all this. You mentioned God’s giving us desires and that is what Catholic theology would insist, that fundamentally all desire comes from and leads toward God. But there’s also this insistence that it can be distorted. And that in reality, immersed as we are in the midst of a kind of broken world, making poor choices ourselves, our desires do become distorted. So just because we want something doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s a good thing, although it does mean that underneath it there must be a yearning for something good.

That concept, going back to Augustine, of whom I know you’re not a fan, is still part of Catholic moral theology, but it’s become a lot more nuanced over the last century, especially where sexuality is concerned, in the following specific way: that for much of the Christian past, many centuries, really, the heuristic approach to this question of concupiscence where sexuality was concerned was to say that, “Well, what sex is really for is procreation, and the element of desire and pleasure involved is so intricately mixed up with concupiscence, with distorted desire, that really the best way to approach this is to try not to give any room for that dimension of it at all.” So that for a long time, the basic outlook sexually for Catholics was, married people should have sex to procreate and their motive should not involve pleasure.

Dan Fincke: Not even as a partial motive?

Bede (John) Hazlet: I don’t think so. I mean, that’s how I understand it. Just because it was seen as so dangerous. That’s something that even the most traditionalist Catholics today would probably find abhorrent. It just seems obviously fairly distorted itself. And in the course of the twentieth century the Church kind of shifted away from that. This comes to the surface in the documents of Vatican II, and it’s explicitly articulated in John Paul the Second’s ‘Theology of the Body’ that he unfolded in the course of a series of audiences. So, then, now the Church insists that sex has two equally important, equally consecratable purposes. One is procreative, the other is unitive, that’s all about the pleasure, delight, desire, relationship building dimension of sex. And today the church insists that those two things have to go together, that sex to be blessable has to be within the context of marriage, understood heterosexually.

I go into all of that just to say that even the Church’s kind of official take on sexuality in our time represents a major development, with respect to what had been its take on sexuality for hundreds of years. And that often isn’t recognized. It’s not recognized by people who tend toward the right, because they tend to talk about what I’ve just articulated as the Church’s traditional teaching, when in fact it’s a major development in that teaching. And it’s not recognized by people who tend toward the left, because they tend to see this as still a draconian attitude towards sex, because of its insistence on the joining of sex’s unitive and procreative purposes, and because of its insistence that to be morally good, sex has to be in the context of straight marriage. “So where does that leave me?” And it’s a long winded way of getting to that. I think that trying to appropriate with integrity a tradition like the Catholic tradition, it’s important to be prepared to be challenged by it. And it’s also important to be prepared to recognize that real development is very time consuming, that explicit shifts in how things are officially, magisterially articulated in the life of the Church, take a long time to happen, even centuries. And that’s essentially a good thing, it seems to me. Because what it allows for is a long process of percolation and argument and debate and so forth before there’s any kind of express shift. So the shifts I’ve just described in the area of sexuality were brewing for a very long time, and finally came to expression.

I think where homosexuality is concerned, and I really… I really don’t like that word, since it was coined in a clinical context in the nineteenth century as referring to a disease, and also because it’s kind of an ugly Greek-Latin hybrid, but for lack of a better word, um… where homosexuality is concerned I don’t think one can predict how the tradition’s going to develop. I don’t think people who want to maintain the status quo can predict that that will remain exactly as it is. I don’t think people who want to predict some kind of huge opening up of things can predict that, either. I do think we can predict that over the course of decades or even centuries, there will be development. And it seems to me that what the lines of that development might emerge as being will probably have something to do with a reevaluation of the relationship between the unitive and procreative purposes of sexuality, and exactly as you said a few minutes ago, with the deeper appropriation of contemporary philosophical, anthropological, biological insights about what queerness is.

And at the end, after this long-winded account, that’s what I want to kind of emphasize most, that the idea of being queer as a sort of stable, settled sexual orientation is quite a new idea for our society, never mind for the Church. It emerged, as I understand it in the nineteenth century; it was initially understood pathologically, gradually it was accepted by gay people themselves as descriptive of them in a non-pathological sense. Moved into a period of being sort of, um, monolithically a way of identifying yourself, “I’m this way, period.” And is now moving it seems to me into a period of sort of reevaluating that monolithic understanding of orientation. Certainly that’s where I am, um, less and less comfort with saying, “I’m gay, period.” More and more comfort with talking in terms of a sort of spectrum of desire in which sexual and other elements are mingled. And that sort of expresses itself in various ways in various contexts.

So, I… my basic approach to this myself is that neither the Church, which it recognizes, nor our secular culture has really even begun to understand what this way of desiring means. Or maybe it would be better to say we have begun to understand it, we have begun to explore it explicitly, but I think we’re a very long way from… from figuring it out. So, I quite respect the fact that the Church is reluctant to modify in a formal way its teachings on this subject, because I think there’s still a lot of ground to be covered, even secularly, in terms of understanding what it means to be queer. And I think the gay community recognizes that, too, as a whole, at least on its more intellectual plane.

And in the meantime, there are Catholics, and I know some of them, who have wrestled with this, thought it through, tried to form their consciences in a way that respects the tradition and its magisterial expression in our own time, and dissent from this, and who choose to live in same sex relationships. Not in violation of their consciences and not as a gesture of flippant disregard for the integrity of the tradition, but as Catholics, as Catholics who are trying to be faithful to Christ, as he discloses himself through the life of the Church and the development of its tradition. And I think the experience of those people and insights they gain from that experience, will be important in the process of development, as will be, on the one hand, various theologians trying to push the envelope, and on the other hand various prelates trying to maintain the status quo. I think that that tension is kind of necessary in the life of the Church. It does make for a very uncomfortable situation for a lot of gay Catholics.

And as someone who has been tempted to suicide myself, I’m very sensitive to what you said a minute ago about how the angst associated with coming to terms with your sexuality can actually be fatal. And for the Church to be complicit in generating that angst could be a really morally serious thing. And that’s part of why I’m willing to discuss this here with you at the moment, because I think the best way to come to terms with it is to be quite upfront about what the church’s teaching is now, the fact that it will necessarily develop… develop, but that the development can’t be predicted, and that people who are gay in the Church are not to be ostracized, whether they embrace the current teaching fully and try to live sexually abstinent lives, or whether they fall into the category of conscientious dissenters. Neither is to be rejected in the life of the church, though falling in the latter category is obviously difficult and uncomfortable.

And it’s important, too, to recognize that even formally the Church’s teaching is not that the gay orientation is immoral in itself. This might seem like hair-splitting, but officially what Catholic theology would propose is that this way of desiring is a somehow distorted way of desiring, so that to act on it has moral implications. But the Church itself, even in the catechism, recognizes that where this way of desiring comes from is not understood. And I think that’s the opening into a deeper understanding of this reality, recognizing that we don’t understand its sources or its meaning or its implications, and trusting that as we gain a deeper insight into those sources, biologically, anthropologically, philosophically, and experientially, there will be richer possibilities for developing a theology of what it means.

The rest of the excerpted videos and transcripts from the interview:

How My Best Friend Helped End My Faith and then Became an Openly Gay Monk
Out of the Closet for the 1st Time, at Oxford
On Anglicanism and On Celibate Love
How Catholic Moral Teaching On Sexuality Is Evolving
Does A Good God Guide The Catholic Church? A Debate
Is The Catholic Church’s Treatment of Gays Morally Defensible? A Debate
Does Celibacy Infantilize and Create Child Molesting Priests?
A Gay Monk Argues Against Reparative Therapy
On Treating Mental Illness, Rather Than Romantically Theologizing It
How the Catholic Church’s Views on Gays Might Evolve

The transcripts in this series were created this summer by Josiah “BibleName” Mannion. He donated his time to produce the more than 22,000 word transcript of the entire interview. Josiah makes his living as a photographer and currently needs camera repairs done that he cannot afford. If you would like to chip in to this generous man, donate to and my friend Sarah Morehead will get the money to him. (UPDATE: The atheist community came through big and Josiah was able to get a new camera!)

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