The following Christian Worldview Journal article by Steven C. Wright is commentary on the recent remarks of Pope Francis regarding homosexuality. As the media has pretty much given this a positive spin it is well to balance things out. RMF
By Steven C. Wright, August 19, 2013
Parsing the pope
“If a gay person is in eager search of God, who am I to judge them?” Those words, spoken by Pope Francis to reporters during his recent return flight from Brazil, have drawn world-wide attention in the press. The new pontiff has become known for shaking things up – eschewing a posh residence, resisting tight security, engaging with the poor, and now answering questions from journalists in an impromptu and unscripted press conference. Was he signalling a change in the Roman Catholic Church’s stance on homosexuality? Will homosexual acts be transferred from the list of sinful deeds to that of sanctioned behavior? Was Francis speaking of a change of theological substance? Was he engaging in a ploy to boost the image of the church in a world growing more and more inclusive in its views of sexual morality? A veritable journalistic cottage industry emerged overnight to bat around such questions and to parse the words of the pope.
Enter Gene Robinson
Time magazine chose Gene Robinson to serve as its pundit on the papacy with his commentary entitled “The Pope’s Baby Steps on Gays.”[i] Back in 2003, Robinson made history by becoming the first openly-practicing homosexual to be appointed a bishop in the Episcopal Church. He has been an outspoken advocate for full acceptance of homosexuality in the church and in society, recently addressing these issues in his book, God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage (Vintage, 2013). Robinson thus writes as a stakeholder in the debate – one who would very much like to see the Roman Catholic Church replace its historical opposition to homosexual practice with a new, inclusive stance. The now-retired bishop examines the pope’s comments to determine whether they are a bellwether of such change.
Robinson’s conclusion is reflected in the sub-title of his article, “Francis’ encouraging words show how far the Roman Catholic Church still has to go.” On the one hand, Robinson sees in the pope’s words some signs of encouragement for his cause. He notes Francis’s use of the English word gay and a tone of kindness and compassion which, he claims, stands in contrast to more “judgmental” language employed by previous popes. Robinson is pleased to report, “This change in tone is significant.” At the same time he believes there is still a long way to go, because “a closer look at the Pope’s statement reveals little change in the Church’s stance on being gay.”
What is that stance? We find it summarized in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in a section entitled, “Chastity and homosexuality.”[ii] The Catechism declares: “Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.’” Of such acts, it says unequivocally, “Under no circumstances can they be approved.” Thus, homosexual practice is clearly proscribed. At the same time, those with homosexual tendencies “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” The Catechism acknowledges that those with homosexual tendencies may be Christian, and it spells out their duty regarding their sexuality: “Homosexual persons are called to chastity.”
Robinson is right in his assessment that nothing the pope said signalled a change in Roman Catholic teaching about homosexuality. In fact, even the tone of compassion that he singled out as a hopeful sign is nothing new. Francis merely exemplified the “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” called for in the Catechism. By focusing on that aspect of the Church’s teaching, the pope’s words were winsome, to be sure, but hardly revolutionary. And revolution is what Robinson wants – a wholesale reversal of Christian doctrine and ethics relating to homosexuality.
Robinson’s theological plea
Robinson argues that the Catholic position, which is in line with all streams of historic Christian orthodoxy, involves an inappropriate separation of being and doing. He believes that if one is a homosexual, then one must be free to act on homosexual impulses. He asks:
“Would a loving God create a certain portion of humankind to be affectionally drawn to people of the same gender yet deprive them of ever expressing that love, finding intimacy with and commitment to another person and solemnizing that love in the institution of marriage?”
Robinson spells out the implications of a positive response: “That surely would be a cruel God, hardly worthy of praise and devotion.” He calls for an understanding of divine love that not only embraces homosexuals but that puts a stamp of approval on homosexual acts. The ex-bishop concludes his article with the provocative statement, “If God is love, as Scripture attests, then surely God is gay love too.”
Responding to Robinson
What are we to make of Gene Robinson’s reasoning? On the surface it sounds good, cloaked as it is in an appeal to God’s love. But when we look below the surface, we find that his argument is philosophically fallacious, theologically erroneous, and Biblically unsound. Ironically, it is also ultimately unloving.
When Robinson says that being and doing must not arbitrarily be separated, he is committing what philosophers call the naturalistic fallacy – “the fallacy of deducing ethical duties from facts about the world, of deducing ‘ought’ from ‘is.’”[iii] Christians should know better than to make this mistake, for the Bible tells us we now live in a fallen world. What is has been corrupted by sin and, for this reason, cannot be considered, in and of itself, a safe guide to ethics. Often, we are called to battle against what is in order to strive toward what ought to be. This is surely the case when it comes to sexual ethics. All manner of disordered sexual impulses exist in the world, but their existence does not place a stamp of divine approval on acting them out. The existence of lustful impulses does not ethically justify pre-marital intercourse. The existence of polyamrous impulses does not ethically justify polygamy or adultery. And the existence of homosexual impulses does not ethically justify homosexual acts. Scripture acknowledges the existence of all of these impulses while simultaneously condemning acting upon them in sinful ways. Nature alone is no sure guide to morality. For that, we are dependent upon supernatural revelation.
When we look to that revelation as it comes to us in Scripture, we see that Robinson’s case cannot be sustained Biblically. He speaks of God “creat[ing] a certain portion of humankind to be affectionally drawn to people of the same gender,” but what is his Biblical justification for such a statement? When we explore God’s creative work with human beings, we come to a different conclusion. Genesis 2 pictures God creating the first humans and instituting marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman – the only context for sexual intimacy. Jesus looked back to this passage as providing the creational norm for marriage (Matthew 19:4-6), and so must we. Robinson might reply that he is speaking of God’s creative act in bringing forth each individual human being in history. We certainly want to affirm God’s intimate involvement in the birth of each child (Psalm 139:13-16), but God’s creative involvement doesn’t automatically shield those newly-born human beings from the effects of sin’s curse on the human race. Because of the fall, some babies are born with incurable diseases, some with genetic deformities, and, yes, some with disordered sexual impulses. Each of these is tragic and ought to lead us to hate (original) sin which is at its root, to look forward to the new creation from which sin and its curse will be forever banished, and, in the meantime, to do what we can to mitigate the suffering that accompanies such conditions. For those with homosexual tendencies, that is not accomplished by giving in to those tendencies but by holding them in check.
Scripture makes absolutely clear that homosexual acts are sinful. As we’ve seen, they fail to conform to God’s creational design for marriage and sexual intimacy. They are condemned in the Old Testament Law (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13). In the New Testament, they are listed among the sins that result when human beings suppress the truth about God in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18; 24-27) and that can keep people from inheriting the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9). As the Creator of human beings, God knows what is best for His image-bearing creatures. It is not cruel, but loving, for Him to proscribe behavior that keeps us from experiencing that which is best. Endorsing homosexual behavior is ultimately unloving because it leads people to act contrary to God’s plan for human flourishing in this age and in the age to come.
The good news is that God is love. His love does not abandon us to sin but rather offers to deliver us from it. God is not “gay love,” but God does love gays. He demonstrated this by sending His Son to die on the cross for the sins of all who will come to the Son in faith – heterosexuals and homosexuals alike. Jesus came to deliver us not only from the penalty of sin but also from its power. Sexual impulses are powerful, but Jesus is more powerful. Sometimes, He demonstrates that power by delivering people from homosexual impulses altogether so that they can enjoy sexual intimacy within heterosexual marriage. Sometimes, He demonstrates that power by enabling those with homosexual impulses to master those impulses and lead celibate lives (as He does for unmarried heterosexuals). This can involve tremendous struggle, but it is the love of God seen in Christ that provides hope for victory.
Pope Francis said, “If a gay person is in eager search of God, who am I to judge them?” Christians who don’t struggle with homosexual temptation should not look down in judgment on those who do. But neither should they endorse a lifestyle that God condemns. Rather, all whose search for God has led them to Christ should encourage one another to put off the old self of sin (in all its many forms) and to put on the new self of righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:22-23). In Christ we may find healing, wholeness, and holiness – gracious gifts from our loving God.
[i] Gene Robinson, “The Pope’s Baby Step on Gays,” Time, August 13, 2013.