Summary of the Law (said at every Sunday Mass)

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Gay and Catholic, Part II: The Clobber Passages

‘Oh, if only we knew!’ said Jill.
‘I think we do know,’ said Puddleglum.
‘Do you mean you think everything will come right if we do untie him?’ asked Scrubb.
‘I don’t know about that,’ said Puddleglum. ‘You see, Aslan didn’t tell Pole what would happen. He only told her what to do.’
—C. S. Lewis, The Silver Chair

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My own reasons for being Side B rather than Side A have very little to do with the ‘clobber passages’: i.e., those verses of Scripture cited as grounds for considering homosexuality wrong. However, they certainly must be dealt with, honestly and frankly, so I’ll try and knock them out in one go here. The texts in question are: Genesis 19.1-11, the story of Sodom; Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13, Mosaic laws against homosexuality; Romans 1.24-27, part of a Pauline speech about the corruption of the Gentiles who refuse to acknowledge God; and I Corinthians 6.9-11 and I Timothy 1.8-11, passing references on St Paul’s part.

First, the story of Sodom. As we all know, two angels came to visit Lot and his family, before Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed for their wickedness, as was the style of the time. And when these two angels had been received by Lot as his guests, the men of the city came to Lot’s front door demanding to use his guests’ back doors.

Which, gotta say, rude. You could've at least bought them a drink, men of Sodom.

Melinda Selmys pointed out in her first book that the atmosphere of the scene isn’t at all like an orgy, as some commentators and preachers imply, but rather like that of a lynch mob. The xenophobic and aggressive humiliation of the strangers by rape, rather than any satisfaction of lust, seems to be the intent; and this seems to be borne out by the rest of Scripture, which never cites homosexuality as the characteristic sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, but does consistently speak of their arrogance, their cruelty to the poor, and their lazy indifference. But even if this weren’t the motive, the fact remains, we’re talking about gang rape. Gang rape is wrong anyway, regardless of the genders of the participants. So Genesis 19 is not a good text to appeal to in defense of a traditional perspective; indeed, given the sins of Sodom that Ezekiel writes about, it sounds more like a warning to America as a whole than to American gays in particular.

Secondly, the Levitical laws. These are the famous ones about Thou shalt not lie with mankind and Their blood shall be on their own heads and Margaret Cho used to be a lot funnier. Now, one alternate interpretation is that these laws actually concern the practice of male prostitution, especially in Canaanite paganism. It’s an appealing theory in some ways—though it has to be said that the death penalty for male prostitutes still comes off as a little harsh. The problem with it is that Hebrew has a word for male prostitute, קָדֵשׁ (qadesh), and doesn’t use it here; it uses the generic term זָכָר (zakar), which just means ‘male.’ And the simplest explanation, as so often, is that the text just means what it says.

The other alternate views of these verses tend to run into similar problems. Some presume that it’s about male rape—without any textual support. Some make it a ritual prohibition, along the lines of abstaining from pork or not wearing clothing with mixed fibers; the catch being, isn’t that a pretty colossal burden to lay arbitrarily on gay people just for the sake of marking out how weird the Jews were supposed to be for God?

A much more economical explanation would be that God is cruel or imaginary. This would then make these passages only examples of human passions, and in that way, a very ordinary thing, though not less hateful for that. But of course, I’m explaining why I am Side B, and one of the defining characteristics of Side B is Christianity. If I took either of those views, I wouldn’t bother with religion, and there’d be nothing to explain.1

Passing to the New Testament, we come to Romans 1.24-27. Because this passage is so often quoted, disputed, dissected, redacted, and finally buried in soft peat for three months and recycled as a fire-lighter, I shall quote it in full2:

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. (English Standard Version)

It’s not a pretty picture, and I don’t like it any more than the next guy; indeed, a great deal less, since the next guy is, statistically, probably a breeder. But let’s look intelligently at the arguments that have been made over it.

Some have argued that these clearly aren’t loving relationships, and therefore would come under condemnation in any case. The problem here is twofold: first, the text doesn’t say anything about these people not being in love; and second, Scripture never implies, even a little bit, that falling in love with somebody makes it okay to pork them. The only thing the Bible connects sexuality to is that much more demanding, because more concrete, state called marriage.

Others have taken the view that what St Paul is condemning here is wanton homosexual experimentation by heterosexually oriented people—taking words like exchanged and gave up to mean that these people were departing from an established personal heterosexuality, which they ought not to violate, whereas someone with a homosexual predisposition is not exchanging anything, and therefore isn’t under discussion. Even if this didn’t erase bisexuals from the conversation, I’d find it hard to view it as anything other than a load of dingo’s kidneys. Categories of sexual orientation (however useful they are) didn’t exist in St Paul’s time, and the idea that we are responsible to maintain our predispositions is not a recognizable theme in Scripture; if anything, the general theme is one of change, especially that kind of change called repentance. There is nothing else in Romans, in the Pauline corpus, in the whole Bible, to add weight to this view.

Another suggestion is that this has reference to idolatrous rites common in Rome at the time which involved homosexuality (hence the extensive links, both in the verses themselves and in the wider context, to forsaking the truth about God, worshiping created things, and so on). This isn’t impossible: it could even be read as an attack on the priesthood of Cybele in Rome, who were widely considered effeminate, and many of whom were castrates.

You can totally see it in whatever the fuck this thing is.

There are two problems with this interpretation: first, it doesn’t give a good explanation of the inclusion of women in verse 26 (which may be the only Biblical allusion to lesbianism3); and second, Paul is framing this behavior as a consequence of idolatry, not a form of it. If it were an attack on pagan priests as such, we might have expected the more traditional, and more Pauline, charge of sacrificing to demons. As he goes on through a whole dirty-laundry list of sins in the following verses, sins that we know only too well are not the special preserve of pagans or of their priests, I think the traditional reading of Romans 1 is the most persuasive.

He makes two more allusions to the subject, in I Corinthians and I Timothy, both containing the vexed word ἀρσενοκοίτης (arsenokoitês). Broken into its constituent parts, the word literally means ‘male bed’; its recent history is vexed because, since it isn’t a standard Greek word,4 its meaning is hotly disputed. Translations from ‘homosexual’ to ‘male prostitute’ to ‘pedophile’ have been put forward.

And here again, I find the traditional interpretation the most convincing. For ἀρσενοκοίτης parallels the Septuagint, the then-current Greek translation of the Old Testament, word-for-word in its rendering of Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13. Just as the Hebrew uses the generic term זָכָר , the translators of the Septuagint used the generic word ἄρσεν ‘male,’ paired it with a very normal verb meaning ‘to sleep with,’ and St Paul—perhaps coining a word that, by its awkwardness, drew attention to its source in the Greek text of Leviticus, so that he would not be misunderstood—put the two together. I don’t think we can make a good case that Paul meant anything other than what Leviticus meant; and I don’t think Leviticus is unclear.

If only our brother Paul would write some things that are hard to understand, maybe he wouldn't bum me out so bad.

A few vitally important notes remain:

1. Though I do think the teaching of Scripture on this subject clear, I don’t find it emphatic. Five or six verses out of thirty-five and a half thousand-odd, does not make for what we could call a book to which homosexuality is of central importance. This doesn’t entitle us to disregard Scripture, but it does put things in perspective—for instance, it serves as a quiet rebuke to many Christian homophobes, who will fulminate against gay sex as a specially corrupt, peculiarly damnable sin; while casually gossiping about the faults of others, ignoring the needs of the homeless and underprivileged, living lifestyles of incredible wastefulness, and imagining all the vices other people indulge in private in order to feel superior.5

2. This does not settle any political question. That Biblical revelation is true is one thesis; that Biblical revelation should be imposed by force at a state level—something that our Lord specifically declined to do at His arrest, trial, and murder—is another idea entirely. No amount of referring to Scripture does, or could, establish whether things like gay marriage ought to be legal.

3. This is not an answer to the question, ‘How do I live my life as a gay Catholic?’ As Eve Tushnet memorably put it, nobody has a vocation of ‘No.’ Not only is not-having-sex not adequate as one’s purpose in life, it isn’t even adequate as one’s purpose in celibacy; nor are these commandments a theology of sexuality. They are no more than they claim to be: individual instances of what God tells us. The why, the deeper reality of sexuality and of the body, is where we have to go to understand this (or try to). I can’t live on a law. I need something deeper, something I can stretch out in. And the clobber passages ain’t it.

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1I will go into more detail about why I do bother with religion in a later post in the series. But to do it now would seriously derail the post.
2Well, ‘in full.’ This is, after all, four verses out of a sixteen-chapter letter.
3A different interpretation, which I do think persuasive, would make the behavior of the women in verse 26 a reference not to lesbianism, but to contraception. (Contrary to popular belief, contraceptives have a very long history, from abortifacient herbs and fruits to diaphragms made of lemon halves or dried crocodile dung, because the world was awful.) The references to nature, φύσις (phusis) in Greek, may be a sort of etymological pun; for the noun comes from the verb φύω (phuô), meaning ‘to grow.’ Insofar as contraception is anti-growth, as it were, it may be this that the Apostle has in mind.
It is also possible—and, since this was indulged in as one form of contraception in the ancient world, this overlaps with the previous interpretation—that the activity in question (shared by ‘the men likewise’) is, well, butt stuff.
4It may seem bizarre to say that this isn’t a standard Greek word when it’s made of Greek parts. However, it doesn’t appear in other contemporary literature, and has the feel of a word that a non-native speaker has stuck together, the way a non-native speaker of English today might refer to a restaurant as a foodhouse: it’d be comprehensible, but it’d stick out to a native speaker as a weird thing to say.
5Some of them probably go as far as to write whole blog posts about others’ vices. Thank God I am not like that!


  1. You're right about the "clobber passages," but then again, we are not Sola Scriptura people. Could we arrive at truth without the Bible? I find Theology of the Body and studying natural law philosophy to be what spoke to me most in my attempt to understand these matters. I used to be non-Catholic, then kind of cafeteria Catholic, finally practicing Catholic. I had a lot of trouble with what the church taught about women, human sexuality, contraception, etc., into I got into ToB.

    1. We're not, no; and as I said, my own views are shaped more by other things than by the clobber passages. What those other things are (TOB being among them) is something I'm planning to explore throughout the series; this particular post is very much a get-this-out-of-the-way affair: not that these texts are unimportant, but that I feel they can be dealt with succinctly and I preferred to do that up front.

  2. Thank you for this, Gabriel. This series is very well-written and very helpful. A couple of questions I had:

    1) You seem to imply that gay sex is not a "specially corrupt, peculiarly damnable sin." However, is not gay sex usually classified (using the archaic term "Sodomy") among the "sins that cry out to heaven for vengeance?" This does not seem to be part of Sacred Tradition, but it is definitely seems to be a part of small-t tradition and thus worth addressing.

    2) You state that no amount of referring to scripture could establish whether or not gay marriage should be legal. Am I correct in assuming that you think gay marriage should not be recognized by the state because, though it's not in scripture, is Catholic teaching?

    1. 1) "The sin of the Sodomites," i.e. the inhabitants of Sodom, is one of the four classes of sins that "cry to heaven" (the other three being "the blood of Abel," "the cry of the people oppressed in Egypt," and "injustice to the wage earner"). You're right that this is not necessarily infallible; a Catholic is free to believe or not believe that these sins are not only wrong but cal to God in a peculiar way for remedy. However, an additional layer of complication is that "the sin of the Sodomites" can be taken in multiple ways. Plenty of people *have* believed that it refers primarily to homosexuality, or at least includes it; but since the "sins that cry to heaven" is more along the lines of a teaching device than a piece of formal moral theology, and especially since Scripture's own accent is consistently on the fact that -- well, "This was the sin of thy sister Sodom, pride, fullness of bread, indolence, neither did she strengthen the hand of the needy" -- I think it can be interpreted in differing ways, for whatever weight we give to it.

      2) Actually, no. Catholic revelation, in which Scripture holds the pre-eminent place, does not in my view have any right to dictate the forms of civil law. Now, ideally, it will form men's consciences to know what is right, and form their character to pursue it; but that indirect influence is the most I personally allow to its legal power.

      For lack of a better way of saying it, I do think that gay marriage ought not to have been enshrined in law, because I believe that marriage as the foundation of the family ought to have a uniquely privileged place in society. But this is a question of my political views, which are founded not on revelation (the special realm of the Church) but on reason. My view of marriage is part and parcel with my view of society as a whole, and I touched on it in the last couple of posts in my recent series on anarchism.

      Moreover, it doesn't follow from this that there should be no recognition of gay couples. I felt that civil unions were a very good compromise in principle, although the benefits those unions extended weren't adequate (or so I gathered); and there are other benefits that are in fact attached to marriage that I think should be entirely a matter of personal choice (like inheritance or who can come see you in the hospital).

    2. That really clears things up with regards to the sin of Sodom - thanks for that.

      However, it seems to me that Catholic revelation tries to dictate civil law in a number of ways. Catholic social teaching is part of revelation and is all about structuring civil society in a particular way. Moreover, Catholics are bound to believe that things like abortion should be outlawed.

      With regards to same-sex civil marriage specifically, the CDF's 2003 document "Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons" states: "The Church teaches that respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behaviour or to legal recognition of homosexual unions."

      Perhaps this is not an infallible document, but even so it seems to necessitate a certain degree of assent from Catholics. I'm a new Catholic so it's tough for me to assess how binding Church documents are.

      (Also, that's me who accidentally commented the "J" down there - so feel free to delete it, I'm not sure how to do that)

    3. It can be difficult to distinguish the proper spheres of reason and revelation, civil and ecclesiastical affairs. (Don't worry, it gets easier with practice.) Here are a few guiding principles.

      1. The Church has authority to teach on matters of faith and morals. Now, faith (in the sense concerned here) has to do with revealed truths; but morals are not a matter of special revelation, i.e. that self-disclosure of God that came first to the Jews in the Tanakh, and then, more profoundly and finally, to the Church in the Person of Christ. Men have a conscience that tells us right from wrong; that's part of our nature. It was not introduced to us by revelation, and it's why people who are neither Jews nor Christians are perfectly capable of leading upright lives.

      The reason the Church has, and needs, authority to teach on moral subjects is twofold: first, that our consciences are imperfect, just as (for instance) our eyes may be imperfect, even though vision is a normal property of human beings; and second, that we need to be reminded of and challenged to follow our consciences pretty frequently. Being sinners, we don't like to do that. Newman said that conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ; in the same way, the Vicar of Christ is in a sense a living symbol of the conscience. That is one reason that many people dislike him.

      So when the Church teaches that something is right or wrong, she is (with a very few exceptions) not introducing a new moral precept, but reminding us of something that most of us know in our hearts already. This isn't to say that anybody who claims, for instance, not to have any instinctive perception that homosexuality is wrong is lying -- I've no such instinct myself, though to judge from the moral codes of most peoples at most times, others seem to. (I think this is probably a sort of quirk of mine, a little like the astigmatism in my right eye.) But when the Church asserts that something ought to be enshrined in law, she is not saying that the Catholic revelation ought to be enforced by the state; what she's saying is that a certain precept of right conduct, one *discoverable by reason apart from revelation,* is being neglected. She is not so much giving orders as exhorting statesmen to heed their consciences.

      The complicating factors here are, first, that what men *do* discover by reason is not always the same, for a multitude of causes, both innocent and culpable; and second, that the Church is as full of sinners as any other institution (indeed, she was instituted with them specially in mind), and her ministers will not always draw proper distinctions between the spheres of reason and revelation. There are many reasons for this. Sometimes it's mere inattention, or inadequate education. Sometimes it's a well-meaning desire to urge right behavior on people out of a fear that they will hurt themselves by sin if they aren't compelled to do otherwise; this, especially when coupled with a lack of respect for human freedom (which often disguises itself as a high view of orderliness), can produce very great evils in both society and the Church. And yeah, sometimes clergymen are just creeps or jerks like anyone else. The charism of infallibility ensures that the Church's *teaching* will be maintained; the Church's moral record has been full of every kind of imperfection since Pentecost.

      This leads me to the second principle.

    4. 2. The Church rarely invokes her full authority to teach infallibly. Except for the ecumenical councils, there have been a handful of papal pronouncements that meet the requirements, and that's all. But you're right that this doesn't mean we can just breezily disregard the majority of what the Church has to say.

      Here's (part of) how it works. Normally, the Church teaches by her bishops; they are the locus of unity at a ground level. The bishop is never infallible on his own, as on certain terms the Pope is, but he has still received the spiritual ministry of teaching and dispensing the sacraments, and has moreover been trained to be an expert. He can be led astray by malice or ignorance; but the presumption on our part should always be in his favor. It's a little like listening to a professor at college: no, they don't know *everything,* but the wager's good that they know more than you.

      Usually infallibility is only invoked to settle a dispute, generally a dispute of some theological weight (the Arian controversy, which gave us the Nicene Creed, is a prime example). The thing is, there's so much more to spiritual life than the disputes that define its edges. Wisdom is a far subtler thing than knowledge, and it's chiefly wisdom that the Church's pastoral documents are trying to inculcate in us.

      Does that answer your question, or am I talking past you?

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