Theological foundations support same-sex marriage and societal progress, Part 1

Modern Theology

By William P. Messenger

The debate over same-sex unions gains steam on a daily basis, fueled in no small part by 1) court judgments in the States of Vermont and Massachusetts 2) the decision by the City of San Francisco and others to issue same-sex marriage licenses and 3) the Proposition 8 trial in California and the various ballot measures that have followed. Unfortunately, passion over this issue has reached such a level of hysteria that opposing ideas have become inflexible and meaningful discussion rendered nearly impossible. We must seek mutual understanding, if we are to resolve this issue.

Two fundamental questions ground the discussion: should the state legitimize same-sex unions and can the state do so? At the outset, I would like to suggest that it is a decision that society must arrive at together. All the differing viewpoints must be heard and discussed so that the decision benefits society as a whole. In order to arrive at that decision, however, we must first examine whether or not civil authority can recognize same-sex unions. Although the United States is not a theocracy, our society was founded on religious principles and religion plays a significant role in how most Americans see their society.

For most Christians, it appears that the first objection and the one most often appealed to, comes from the Bible. Both the Old and New Testaments appear to present prohibitions against homosexual behavior. A comprehensive and compelling study of the relevant passages has already been done by Daniel A. Helminiak, in the book What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality, published by Alamo Square Press.

One presupposition in the book is that there are and will continue to be active homosexual persons among the general populace and that many of them will continue to seek a legal validation of their relationships. Therefore, at least from a purely legal perspective, the real issue is the codification of a homosexual union that approaches the status of marriage.

Whether or not same-sex unions can appropriate the civil guarantees, rights and privileges of marriage can only be determined after examining whether or not same-sex unions can be justified in their own right.

As a Catholic priest I am disappointed in my Church’s reactionary response to this issue. Therefore, I present this four-part exploration from a Catholic perspective; natural law and Scripture, jurisdiction, sacramentality, and canon law.

Part 1: Natural Law and Scripture

The Christian understanding of natural law is rooted in the concept of God, but as Richard P. McBrien writes in Catholicism “…human reason, reflecting on human nature and human experience, can also arrive at a true moral wisdom and knowledge that holds not only for Christians but for all people.” It is this knowability that forms the initial, albeit tentative, foundation for natural law.
In the context of this discussion, there is any number of reasons why some ancient cultures and previous generations may have considered homosexuality to be contrary to the natural law. Not the least of these was the need to procreate in order to provide a future for the human race. That legitimate need to procreate was further impacted by high infant mortality rates in earlier societies. Additionally, both marriage, and subsequently procreation, advanced the social agendas of families and societies. Witness the arranged marriages that continued in Europe into the 20th century and continue still today in various parts of the world. For generations, the very survival of the human race depended on how it understood sexual activity.

In religious thought, this suggested to some that sexual activity was primarily for the sake of procreation, with pleasure being but a secondary aspect at best. Others even considered sex to be sinful and only acceptable, though not quite redeemed, because it was a necessary tool of procreation. But in the second story of creation in the Book of Genesis, it is the man’s aloneness that God contemplates. And it is that aloneness that moves God to create a partner. After first presenting the various animals as possible partners, and finding them inadequate for the task of full companionship, God creates another being like the man.

The important point is that God created another human being, since none of the beasts was a suitable partner. The fact that the story says it was a woman reflects the cultural conditioning of the ancient Israelites concerning the role of sex in marriage and procreation. This is not to suggest that the cultural conditioning was wrong, simply that it was limited and that historical conditions may have imposed a narrow perspective on sexuality, reflection on the natural law, and even on the Scriptures.

As I have just mentioned, God created a partner, an equal, so that the man would not be alone. One person is to find fulfillment in another person. The creation story suggests that God is solving a social dilemma for the man—he needs companionship. Whatever sexual element grows out of God’s solution, the sex itself is but one expression of the solution to social isolation.

In the context of ancient Israel, as with most of the ancient world, that sexual expression generally entailed a relationship between a man and a woman. For Israel there was the added problem that many of the cultic practices of pagan religions involved alternative and even homo-sexual acts. Therefore a religious dimension and question of faithfulness to the God of Israel came into play. As McBrien writes: “In a world where worship permeated every aspect of life, anything suggestive of pagan cultic practice—e.g., the fertility rites of the Canaanites—would be for the Israelite tantamount to infidelity to Yahweh” (Catholicism).

Helminiak presents a detailed explanation of this concern in Chapter 4 of his book. Beyond these cultic practices, it is hardly imaginable that ancient societies, concerned as they were with their survival, could have conceived of an ongoing same-sex relationship, let alone a same-sex union that was similar to marriage. The point here is that sex is first and foremost a result of God’s solution to the first man’s isolation. At its foundation sex is rooted in companionship, fulfillment and even a pleasure that is directed toward an “other.” That would be the case whether the “other” was of the same or the opposite sex. The dimension of sex for procreation does not even enter the equation, since in this story of creation God says nothing about multiplying. Rather, it is companionship that is inherent in human nature and experience.

It should be noted that this story of creation, while occurring in the second chapter of Genesis, is actually the more ancient of the two. And it inescapably leads to the conclusion that in the original Biblical understanding of creation, same sex unions are not, in and of themselves, contrary to the natural law. Whether or not they can appropriate marriage necessitates a further reflection on marriage.

>>An examination of human experience demonstrates the role of marriage in securing legitimate social agendas, including the future of the race. Further, we discover that marriage and sex are each elements of God’s solution to the man’s aloneness. Yet they are not identical. A critical examination of natural law and the second creation story of Genesis, demonstrates that they can validly exist apart from each other. In the ongoing reflection on human experience, sex and marriage diverge in another crucial area. In the modern age, an argument can be sustained that above all, marriage is a question of love.<<

Rooted in love, marriage takes its direction from God. Perhaps the most concise statement about God is contained in the First Letter of John when the author says, “God is love” (1 John 4:8-16). Certainly no Christian would disagree with that statement. But what does it imply? If God is love, then wherever we find love, we are in the presence of God. Defining love can be tricky. In the context of John’s letter, love is oriented toward another individual and is characterized by sacrifice. Love need not be synonymous with sex. A sexual relationship can exist that does not include love. The primary issue in same-sex unions, as in marriage, is whether or not one person genuinely and sacrificially loves another.

In examining the Thomistic approach to natural law, McBrien lists three basic inclinations of human nature that are knowable through natural law: “those we share with all substances (the preservation and conservation of our being); those which are common to human beings and to animals (procreation and education/training of offspring); those which are proper to rational beings (to know the truth about God and to live in human community).” Knowing the truth about God (God is love), and living in human community (wherever we find love we are in the presence of God), are essentials to the definition of both marriage and same-sex unions. Acknowledging that shared characteristic of love should lead one to conclude that the natural law does not of itself outlaw same-sex unions. That being the case, where does one find the foundation for deciding on same-sex unions?

Theological foundations support same-sex marriage and societal progress, Part 2 >>

(Rev. William P. Messenger is a Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He is also a novelist and a blogger for political and social justice issues.

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