Front-Porch Theology: Wondering About the Church and Sexuality

Last night I sat with my friends on their front porch, enjoying the summery twilight warmth and the explosion of azalea and dogwood blossoms, and passing around copies of the Dayton City Paper‘s unexpectedly unsnarky and informative cover interview with Archbishop Dennis Schnurr. My friends asked me what I thought of the news that Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, had overruled the decision of a pastor to deny an elected position on the parish council to a man living with another man in a registered domestic partnership. The man had appealed the pastor’s ruling to the cardinal, who met personally with the man and his partner. After the meeting, the cardinal says, he rethought his initial instinct to uphold the letter of Church law–which prohibits those living in “manifest grave sin” from holding Church office–because, having found the man eminently qualified for the position in every other way but his relationship, he asked himself what Jesus would do in a similar situation.

Cardinal Schönborn’s statement has been hailed by liberal Catholics and by gay rights groups as a kind of glasnost in the Church’s traditional attitude toward what not-so-liberal Catholics and members of what might be termed straight rights groups tend to call “practicing homosexuals” (the phrase always makes me want to ask if folks think they’re headed to Carnegie Hall). And of course it’s been met with a storm of outrage and disgust and condemnation by conservatives, and those preoccupied with “the gay agenda,” and upholders of every jot and tittle of canon law.

My friends are strong proponents of and participants in traditional marriage. (They’re practicing heterosexuals.) “I don’t see how the cardinal can get away with that,” the wife said last night. “Either there’s a rule or there isn’t. Either the Church teaches that being in a gay relationship is grave sin or it doesn’t.” Her husband was more willing to play the devil’s advocate, at least for the purposes of the conversation. “But the Gospels are full of incidents where Jesus threw the rule book out the window,” he said. “Maybe,” she countered, “but only when the rule got in the way of the real teaching. What’s the teaching here? Is the Church serious about saying sex outside of a traditional marriage is grave sin, or not?”

There’s the question. And I have to be honest that it’s the question that, of all the questions and doubts and pinches I still experience about Church teaching and practice, came closest to keeping me from reverting. I have found a way to live peaceably with what I still sometimes think is an overemphasis on the anti-abortion part of the seamless garment. I accept as unchangeable mystery the limitation of ordained ministry to men. But the Church’s teaching on what constitutes chastity appropriate to one’s state in life? I gotta tell ya, it’s a stopper. And on the porch last night, it knocked me into silence.

At that point, my friends’ neighbors strolled by with their dog. “We’re solving the world’s problems,” I joked. “Good luck with that,” they laughed.

So here’s what I confess out of that front-porch silence. I have absolutely no trouble believing and promoting Church teaching that our sexuality is a gift of God designed to allow us to share in his generous creativity, and  also to give physical expression to the unique intimacy of committed love. That the cheapening of that gift is a tragedy of human experience and a perversion of God’s intent for us, I have no doubt whatsoever. That we as Catholics have an important and healing message about the sacredness of sexual expression to share with a world in desperate need of it, I know to be truer now than ever. And it’s not just Catholic bloggers who are saying so, as Frank Bruni’s recent New York Times review of the HBO show Girls bears eloquent witness.

What I wonder about, in conscience and in reason and in as much humility as I can muster, is not the heart of that teaching, but the belief that the expression of our sexuality–this great and awesome gift of God–is limited to only some people. What other gift of God do we call sin in all but one context? If physical intimacy, which we humans experience as both a powerful drive and a great blessing, is indeed only a good within a marriage between a man and a woman who are, all things such as reproductive capability being equal, open to conception, and is grave sin in any other situation, it’s difficult not to suspect that God designed a good many of us to undergo penitential suffering as a way of life. And every part of what I know and believe about a loving, generous God denies that, so I wonder.

Can our sexuality drive us to grave sin? You betcha. Any abuse of this gift that exploits, cheapens, wounds the self or another is indeed sinful. And in that arena, we are all vulnerable, the married as well as the single or celibate, the straight as well as the gay. Elizabeth Scalia, in a response to the  Schönborn statement, rightly takes us to task for seeming to forget that–for emphasizing the sins of homosexual persons while we sometimes appear to gloss over the very real insults to traditional marriage and the sacredness of sexuality by heterosexual persons.

I would go further in my wondering, though, than Elizabeth does in her corrective. What if, in spite of what the Church has traditionally taught, persons attracted to the same sex are not fundamentally disordered but simply ordered differently? Why would we not want to encourage the same ideal of lifelong commitment, open to the generosity of parenting in the ways that are possible? (I know, I know. This question also questions the Church’s traditional teachings on gender roles and reproductive technologies, not to mention arguments from natural law. I know. But still I ask, and I pray for understanding.) Why, taking it further–and here of course is where I will hear cries of slippery slopes–shouldn’t we concentrate less on making sex itself the sinniest of sins and more on teaching people in all states of life what constitutes commitment and intimacy and generous love for them in their circumstances? I am not advocating opening the sacrament of Matrimony to same-sex couples–still less the acceptance of adultery or pedophilia or bigamy or bestiality or any of the other Well, There You Go analogies. I am not advocating anything, really, just wondering.

In the particular case in question, I am wondering if a disabled man so deeply committed to sharing all aspects of his life and love with another man that he has registered a legal partnership, and so deeply committed to his faith that he wants to give his time to the life of his parish, is by nature so manifest and grave a sinner that his gifts must be put aside as unworthy.

Because, of course, none of us is worthy–either of the gifts God gives us or the love of another human. But if some are unworthier than others, maybe we need to be absolutely clear about it. Maybe we should stop even pretending we can hate the sin and love the sinner if the sin is as constitutive of the sinner’s identity as our experience of sexuality. Maybe we should simply say, at the church door, only the perfectly chaste need apply. Which would leave, pretty much, Jesus and his Mom. I’d say they’d be lonely, but I suspect they’d be off among the less than perfectly chaste rest of us, inviting us to grow in love.

We weren’t any closer to solving this or any other of the world’s problems when my friends’ neighbors returned from circling the block. The answer to the wife’s question is easy, actually: Yep. The Church considers any sexual relationship outside of traditional marriage a grave sin. I give assent of will to that teaching as I do to every other mystery, though I pray that we can find more charitable ways to proclaim it than the kind of toxic guff that fills comboxes. The question of what Jesus would do is, in Cardinal  Schönborn’s mind as in mine, only speculative and always subjective. My other wonderings are harder. I don’t expect them to be answered in this life, and I apologize if they trouble anyone else’s conscience. In the mean time, my soul will sit on the porch and rock and pray.

  • Joy L

    Hi Joanne — this is a tough one sometimes for me as well. I wonder if this is an instance of praying for the Church not so much to "change her position" as to most effectively minister to all people regardless of sexual orientation. A related example might be how the Church counsels spouses that are being abused in marriage. I believe there used to be lots of advice for women to just tolerate the situation, but now priests would offer different counsel. The Church hasn't changed her position on marriage, but has changed practical advice on how to deal with certain suboptimal situations.

  • MC

    Hi Joanne,You can stop me if you've heard of her before, but Eve Tushnet has written before about the Church's "theology of friendship" as a way for gay people to have personal relationships while remaining celibate. It seems to me a start at the issue of how to let people have personal connections in their circumstances without focusing solely on sex as the "sinniest of sins." (She's even been profiled in the New York Times, due to the apparently newsworthy idea one can be a faithful Catholic and gay). I hope you have a blessed Holy Week.

  • Steve

    As a "liberal-minded" candidate about to be received into the Church this Easter Vigil, I really appreciate your thoughts on this subject. It seems the emphasis on a person's personal sexuality is huge topic amoung Christians of all stripes. It pains me to think that many outspoken followers of Christ are so consummed with the sexuality of others that they are willing to deny love, tolerence & mercy towards those they deem "sinful" when we all, in our own way are certainly sinful and "not worthy that God should enter under our roof." Personally I think that we should focus on removing the plank from our own eyes before helping our neighbor remove the speck from his/her eye… But I, like most am still learning & growing in Christ…

  • ElizabethK

    Two kind of vague thoughts from someone who wonders about the same kinds of things:1) I'm at the point now where I'm praying for more clarity, in general, about sexuality in general in our culture. One of my problems with this whole issue is that we (as members of the larger culture) believe certain things about human sexuality, and homosexuality, without a lot of clarity as to whether they're actually true, and whether they're rooted in science or psychology or wishful thinking. Conversations on such have been silenced by those on both sides, and this can't be good. So I pray for air and light on this one. 2) It seems that climate must matter, and by this I mean that this Cardinal's decision means something different, to the Church and the world, than it would have were it done in a different time. The political dimension cannot be ignored, even if we see it as an act of compassion or openness, and this political dimension is not entirely the fault of the Church, nor was the Church the first to place such a heavy emphasis on sex as a piece of identity–this comes out of the culture, which the Church then addresses.

  • Anonymous

    Anglicans also struggle with this, as well you know, and it bothers me a lot. Air and light are very good things to pray for, and I will add them to my list!But: in my theology classes (at UD) I've heard the position taken that the only acceptable expression of love's sexual dimension MUST be one where conception is a possibility. Which, of course, calls into question the validity of my own late-in-life but deeply committed, spiritually nourishing, and quite heterosexual marriage. (And yes, I was told it is disordered.) Or those of– well, gosh, lots of deeply loving and committed male/female couples I know. And a few that are not male/female, but are all those other things. It's so very hard that the only ones I know I disagree with are the "it's very simple" crowd, on both sides. No, it isn't. — J Minor

  • Joanne K. McPortland

    Dear J Minor, I rush to assure you that you're not disordered. Where conception is not possible, it's not possible–except miraculously, of course. It's where the intention to interfere with possible conception exists that the Church finds disorder. That's what I was trying to say with my all things being equal note. Age, functional infertility, etc, exempt couples from the procreative dimension of marriage, but not at all from the unitive dimension. So, still not simple, but not as complicated as you might have thought.

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