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Church risks moral irrevelancy in rejecting homosexuality

May 2012

No issues have so bedeviled the Catholic Church as those of gender and human sexuality. Yet the church shows no signs of changing its teachings in these areas.

It is reported that since the time of Pope John Paul II, all candidates being considered for bishops must be sound on these issues: they must be opposed to female priests, artificial contraception and same-sex marriage.

It is not surprising, then, that very few bishops ever step out of line on these matters. Those who do risk their ecclesiastical careers. Retired Australian bishop Geoffrey Robinson is an exception.

Robinson recently spoke in Baltimore at a symposium on Catholicism and homosexuality.

He called for “a new study for everything to do with sexuality,” a kind of study that he predicted “would have a profound influence on church teaching concerning all sexual relationships, both heterosexual and homosexual.”

“If church teaching on homosexual acts is ever to change, the basic teaching governing all sexual acts must change,” he said. Robinson argued that the church’s moral appraisal of same-sex unions would change dramatically if it were to re-evaluate its traditional approach to all human sexuality.

While the church’s emphasis on the profound significance of sex is correct, its natural-law approach to sexual morality and its interpretation of ancient scriptural passages on homosexual and other sexual activity are in need of correction, the bishop argued.

Robinson began his talk with three basic premises: there is no possibility of a change in the teaching of the Catholic Church on the subject of homosexual acts unless and until there is a change in its teaching on heterosexual acts; there is a serious need for change in the church’s teaching on heterosexual acts; if and when this change occurs, it will inevitably have its effect on the teaching on homosexual acts.

“If the starting point is that every single sexual act must be both unitive [loving] and procreative, there is no possibility of approval of homosexual acts.”

Robinson then went on to suggest that a more nuanced reading of divine commandments in scripture and of Jesus’s teachings would lead to a different set of moral norms, starting with a change in teaching that every sexual act or thought that falls outside a loving conjugal act open to procreation is a mortal sin because it is a direct offense against God himself in his divine plan.

“For centuries the church has taught that every sexual sin is a mortal sin. The teaching may not be proclaimed as loudly today as much as before, but it was proclaimed by many popes, it has never been retracted and it has affected countless people.”

“The teaching fostered a belief in an incredibly angry God, for this God would condemn a person to an eternity in hell for a single unrepented moment of deliberate pleasure arising from sexual desire. I simply do not believe in such a God. Indeed I positively reject such a God.”

I expect that many Catholic priests and bishops would agree with Robinson, but they will not say so publicly for fear of retaliation from Rome.

An influential American journal, the National Catholic Reporter, is solidly behind Robinson’s call for a new sexual ethic: “We wholeheartedly second the invitation by Bishop Robinson for a thorough and honest re-examination of the church’s teaching on sexuality.

Robinson’s invitation is a gentle but elegant plea that offers hope for Catholics who want to stop the church’s headlong plunge into irrelevancy as a moral voice in our culture. ... Robinson’s take on sexuality—that it deserved deeper consideration than the narrow rule-bound approach that has evolved in Christian circles—takes us to the very heart of the radical approach Jesus took toward human relationships.”

Indeed, it is likely that a large number of lay Catholics in Canada and the United States agree with Robinson on the church’s need for sexual reform. But many more voices—both lay and clergy—will need to say so before such reform becomes a reality.



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