Fr James Martin SJ has put the cat among the pigeons with a controversial tweet questioning whether the prohibitions of homosexual activity in the Bible can stand up since the Bible does not condemn slavery. Fr Martin’s question is, “If the Bible accepts slavery, but we’ve changed our mind on that matter, why should the Bible necessarily be right about the prohibition of homosexual actions?
I’ve answered the basic question regarding Biblical interpretation here on my main blog, but there is a subsequent question worth pondering, and that has to do more with how we make moral choices and the nature of good and evil.
First, I should state that this post is not about the homosexual condition or even about homosexual actions per se. About these matters I have no opinion other than the teaching of Sacred Scripture and the catechism of the Catholic Church.
The curious question is this: Fr Martin and others equate the Bible’s acceptance of slavery and its rejection of homosexual actions. But are these two moral issues comparable? Let’s think it through.
The Scriptures condone slavery, but they condemn homosexual actions. The distinction is important.
Note that in the first case of slavery, the Bible writers condone something they consider to be at least acceptable (if not actually good) but later Christians eventually decide to reverse what they thought was good and call it evil. We thought slavery was ok. Now we say its not.
In the second instance (homosexual actions) the Bible writers condemn something they consider evil. Some later Christians want to reverse that and call that evil thing good.
Put simply, in the first instance something we thought was good we now call “evil”.
In the second instance, something we thought was evil we now want to call “good”.
These two issues are therefore not equivalent at all. In fact, they are a mirror image of one another.
The fact that there are some things we think good which we later decide are evil indicates a development of the moral sense. Our conscience has become more refined and more precise.
However, deciding that something is good that we have always considered to be evil would be a degradation of the moral sense. Our conscience has become dulled and more vague.
We can think of many things that society has, in the past, considered good which we now consider evil. Polygamy was considered good. Now we don’t think so. Human sacrifice was considered good. Now we are repulsed by such an idea. Killing millions of Jews was considered good. Now we think not. Infanticide was thought good. Now it is bad. Capital punishment was considered good. Now it is bad.
But… while we can think of a good number of things that used to be good which we now consider evil, it is impossible to think of anything which has always been considered evil which we now consider good. To be sure, there are some things which were considered evil which we now have made acceptable, but notice that we do not call them “good.”
We thought abortion was bad. We have made it legal and acceptable but is there anyone who actually thinks abortion is good? No. Even the pro-choice people say it should be “safe, legal and rare.” If it is good why should it be rare? Abortion therefore has become acceptable, but we do not say it is good. Maybe those who are pro-choice think helping women in crisis pregnancies is good, but they don’t think abortion is, itself good. They think it is a necessary evil.
Another example: Everyone used to think artificial contraception was bad. Now do we think it is good? Not really. We think free sex without babies is good, but we do not say that artificial contraception is itself a good thing. It might be useful and helpful, but it is not intrinsically good. We used to say divorce and remarriage was bad. Now it is permissible and acceptable, but even now we do not say it is a good thing. It might make life easier and more pleasant for some, but the breakdown of a marriage is still considered to be unfortunate if not downright evil.
So we might say that thing we used to call evil is now acceptable, permissible or even preferable, but do we say that it is intrinsically, in and of itself, something good?
We do not.
Let us take the example of killing another person. Taking another person’s life is evil. However, there are circumstances, as in war or self defense, when killing may be permitted or even demanded. But we still don’t say it’s good. We insist that it is evil to take another person’s life.
Therefore, it is well known that we may change our minds and decide that something we thought was good was, in fact, evil. But it is not known that we would change our minds and say that something that has always been evil is now good.
Why is this?
It is because of the intrinsic nature of good and evil. That which is good is positive. That which is evil is always derivative and negative. That which is good is life giving and natural. That which is evil is always parasitical on that which is good. Evil is either the absence of good or that which destroys or distorts that which is good.
Good is light. Evil is darkness–the absence of light. Good is heat. Evil is cold–the absence of heat.
Because of the intrinsic nature of good and evil it is possible to decide that what we thought was good is, in fact, evil. We thought it was good, but on consideration we saw that it was not good, or at least not as good as it could be. What we thought was good was a deceptive distortion of the good or an absence of a greater good. e.g. We thought slavery was good, but we decided that universal human dignity and freedom were a greater good. We thought polygamy was good, but we came to see that monogamy was a greater good.
If something is evil, it is by its very nature, an absence of good or the distortion or destruction of good. That is why it is impossible to call that which is evil “good”.
It is as impossible as saying the darkness is light. It cannot be, because darkness, by definition is the absence of light. Likewise we cannot call something which is evil “good” because that which is evil is, by definition, a destruction or distortion of the good.
It is possible, therefore to say that slavery is evil–even though we once thought it good, but it is impossible to say that objectively sinful actions are, in and of themselves, good. If I am wrong about this (and I am open to be corrected) and we can say that homosexual actions are not just permissible but good, then we would have to ask the delicate question, “Which homosexual actions, in particular, are intrinsically good?” It would be interesting to hear Fr Martin’s opinion on this question.
Of course, like other things society has called “intrinsically evil” there might be seemingly good consequences from an objectively evil action…(Aunt Hilda felt good when we complimented her on her ugly dress even though we lied) or even circumstances in which that evil was permissible, (Aunt Hilda has a self esteem problem so the lie was kind of ok)… but we are not concerned with hypothetical questions.
We’re interested to know if something we have always called evil (and which God and his church have always called evil) might possibly be intrinsically good after all.
I think not.