Toward an Adequate Moral Evaluation of Homosexuality / Response

Article excerpt

PIERRE W. WHALON*

Should the church ordain "practicing homosexuals?" Should the church bless same-sex unions? U. S. News & World Report has predicted that these two questions will soon cause a schism in the Episcopal Church.l Judging from the Sturn und Drang around the 1994 General Convention and the trial of Bishop Walter Righter, it would seem that indeed many people have already decided what the answers are.

Answering such questions effectively depends largely upon the moral theological evaluation of homosexual lifestyles. But, as I will argue, there is no such persuasive moral theological evaluation. It is not even clear what a "practicing homosexual" is. Homosexuality is indeed the test case for Christian sexual ethics, as a Roman Catholic moral theologian has suggested.2

We turn to the moral theological question. Is it a transcultural abstraction, or does it arise from within concrete reality? It is one thing to judge homosexuality in the abstract. It is quite another to face the special problems our own culture throws at the church. On the one hand, the churches are the bearers of the tradition of rejection in our culture. On the other, tacit ecclesiastical tolerance of gays and lesbians has contributed to the growth of their subculture. We stand like the angel of Revelation with one foot on the land and the other in the sea. Any adequate moral theological position must clearly address this fact.

TWO BASIC POSITIONS

The following observations come from an extensive survey of authors addressing the moral theological problem of homosexuality.3 The aphorism, "Love the sinner, hate the sin," sums up (simplistically, of course) the rejecting position. The proponents of acceptance argue for some previously overlooked good of homosexual acts. Or they take a position that sexual acts of themselves have no objective moral weight. Finally, a nuanced position exists that accepts the traditional verdict of rejection, while seeing the need for a pastoral exception.4

The authors I consider all have several points in common. They are all Christians trying to find the right pastoral response to people who are in pain. All condemn homophobia-pathological fear and loathing of gays and lesbians-and the violence that proceeds from it. All consider the scriptural material carefully, as if it had normative authority for them. All take account of the Tradition, with varying degrees of respect for it. All consider modern scientific findings. All claim that something has to change in the way the church deals with gay people. The moral weight of homosexuality, both as orientation ("condition," "tendency") and act, is the concern of all the texts considered.

Common features are thus: * the imperative that the church provide genuinely caring ministry to homosexual persons;

* the question of the authority of the relatively sparse scriptural materials; * the actual views of the Tradition, within a specific hermeneutic of "Tradition";

* an understanding of the morality of sexual acts derived from a theology of marriage;

* an attempt to engage the gay liberation movement.

This is a clear concordance of aims and investigative method, despite wildly different conclusions. The authors all share a desire to minister to people who are hurting. They want to give them the benefit of the church's teaching and support for the ordering of their lives. How this outreach and teaching appear depends on the individual understanding of homosexuality.

QUESTIONS NOT RAISED

The major failings of the various positions advanced so far have to do with: (1) applying universalizing abstractions to a specific concrete issue, (2) overlooking the ecclesiological assumptions that people make in framing their evaluations, and (3) the demand for ideological conformity that views probing questions as treason, as the struggle for the moral high ground (and consequently, political power) in American culture unfolds. …