11 January 2010

Yet more on Sex

I. Homophobia

I write with apprehension; because Sex is always embarassing to write about. What does the writer reveal about himself? What does this piece he's written say about me? Is he getting directly at my sexuality here? Do I applaud him or condemn him?

But there is no getting away from the fact that Sex is one of the big new dividing points opening up between Christians (and by no means always solely between denominations). And between Christianity and the World. Not the least of the tragedy is that it is less easy to talk joyfully and affirmatively about God's gift of sexuality than one would like it to be.

I wrote a little while ago about Masturbation And All That. May I recall here the main point I was getting at: the fact that the World and its Spirit, Zeitgeist, have decided that this little practice is a matter of indifference and that people who carry on about it must have some very strange hang-ups. But it is 'Tradition' that the practice is "disordered". And that's not the only thing that is, according to the Tradition, disordered. The same split has opened up with regard to Fornication ... particularly in that form of it which is called Living Together Without Being Married. The two-millennia old Tradition of the Church unambiguously condemns it. But ... And what about the 'Marriage' of divorcees? It is condemned by the most explicit words of Christ, and yet has become mainstream among non-RCs - so much so that when I went to a New Incumbents' Lunch with the Archdeacon soon after I arrived in Oxford, I was interested to find that much of the conversation, between a couple of women 'priests', was about how embarassing and intrusive it is when the Bishop tries to check up on the circumstances of the break-up of one marriage before consenting to a clergygirl's next prospective coupling (lovely word from the 1549 Marriage Service, yes?).

And what about Humanae Vitae? As I point out below in Part II, this Encyclical proclaimed, in effect, that the sort of sexual culture lived by a great proportion of First World married people is disordered and unnatural.

Against this background, it is unsurprising that an integral expression of the Tradition is also less than benign towards genitally enacted homosexual relationships. Since pretty well every common Western form of heterosexual lifestyle ends up surrounded by question marks, it would be remarkable if the homosexual lifestyle escaped unmentioned.

There is a philologically nasty coinage "homophobia". Where I do think it has justification is when it is applied to the sort of middle-of-the-road 'moderate' Christian attitude in which Homosexuality is pretty well the only life-style which does attract criticism. For example, I wonder what is going on if a denomination has few problems with clergy who are remarried divorcees but is fussy about clergy in civil partnerships. In purely worldly terms, you might have thought that people would say "Heterosexuals have had the chance of getting married, homosexuals have not; so it's appropriate to be a bit more understanding of the problems of the latter than of those of the former"; but I haven't heard followers of GAFCON saying that. I would sympathise very much more with the Christian Superintendent Registrar who was sacked because her conscience did not allow her to solemnise Civil Partnerships, if she had not (I presume) spent the best years of her life cheerfully 'marrying' divorcees.

And - to move outside our First World culture - I do not desire to discharge unsubstantiated insults when I ask whether African Evangelicals with very strong views on homosexuality are quite so relentlessly hardline when it comes to polygamy. Is that going to attract heavy, even lethal, penal sanctions in Uganda? If not, why not? And what about males who have conducted themselves promiscuously and then infected their wives with AIDS? String them up?

What am I saying? That there is a distinct and coherent package of Traditional Christian doctrine about sexuality which accords ill with the mores which many Christians (especially but not only in the West), whatever their sexual orientation, absorb from the World and live out. Accepting that traditional package integrally is one thing; dumping some of the Don'ts (so that I and my sexuality are left comfortably uncondemned), while keeping the rest of the Don'ts in place (so as to have the luxury of condemning others), is unpleasantly self-righteous and is, I suspect, the sort of "Judging" of which the Lord spoke rather sternly.

Oh, and while we are talking about Judging: I do feel uneasy about a society which not only condemns pedophiles but works itself up into a great hysterical froth about them so that lynch mobs roam the streets, while regarding every other conceivable (bad choice of word, that) sexual practice (as long as consensual) as meriting Affirmation in the intersts of Diversity.

Oh dear ... with trepidation I await proof that I will have offended and enraged at least three diametrically opposed lots of people for diametrically opposed reasons.

II. Humanae vitae

Since the promulgation of the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus, there has been some discussion in the media and on the Internet about the acceptability or otherwise, to Anglicans who might or might not wish to avail themselves of its provisions, of the teaching of the Roman Magisterium about artificial contraception. I would like to recall some facts which are sometimes forgotten.
(1) Dialogue between the Anglican Communion and the RC Church in ARCIC was explicitly based on "The common ancient traditions".
(2) Lambeth VI (1920) declared "We utter an emphatic warning against the use of unnatural means for the avoidance of conception, together with the grave dangers - physical, moral, and religious, thereby incurred ... In opposition to the teaching which, under the name of science and religion, encourages married people in the deliberate cultivation of sexual union as an end in itself, we steadfastly uphold what must always be regarded as the governing considerations of Christian marriage. One is the primary purpose for which marriage exists, namely the continuation of the race through the gift and heritage of children; the other is the paramount importance in married life of deliberate and thoughtful self-control".
(3) Even Lambeth VII, while allowing the possibility of hard cases, did not displace this as the norm.
(4) In the first edition of his influential book The Orthodox Church (1963), Timothy Ware simply wrote: "Artificial methods of birth control are forbidden in the Orthodox Church".

I do not think there is any doubt about what the One Great and Ancient Common Tradition teaches in this matter. The frequent suggestion that Humanae Vitae represents some sort of specifically Roman awkwardness is either deceitful misinformation or culpable ignorance. And furthermore:-

(5) It is true that the Commission set up to consider this matter by Paul VI came to a majority decision which was set aside by the Pontiff when he came to compose his Encyclical. But that 'Majority' decision was based on the assumption that the use of condoms and occlusive pessaries should continue to be excluded as totally immoral, but that the new technology of the Pill created a novel ethical situation. It was argued that, since the structure of the sexual act itself was not disordered by this technology, it did not fall under the same condemnation. Therefore it could be used by married people who were using their sexuality in a philoprogenitive way, but wished responsibly to 'Plan their Families'. (In fact, of course, this is exactly what did not happen; the Pill facilitated a great explosion of promiscuity - very soon, some English Public School doctors were putting all VI form girls on the Pill as a matter of routine).

This cultural orthodoxy was, entertainingly, the cause of its own rapid demise and of the reinstatement of the condom in the esteem of the fashionable. The promiscuity encouraged by the Pill resulted in an enormous increase in Venereal Diseases. The ethical gurus of secular sexual mores suddenly remembered that the condom could plausibly be represented as affording some protection against VD. Since their unspoken agenda is, always, at all costs, to encourage promiscuity, the poor old Pill came under something of a shadow while, now, Condom and Abortion form the twin majestic totems of our sexually incontinent cultural Establishment. Currently the Roman Pontiff is widely criticised for a negative approach to condoms (he is "deliberately murdering" millions of Africans); the Pill rarely now gets a mention.

My point is that, had Paul VI gone along with the majority view of his Commission in maintaining the 'ban' on condoms while embracing (a lovely picture) the Pill, and if his successors had maintained such a decision, the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church would still be in the position of being traduced and vilified because of its lack of enthusiasm for the now applauded condom.

The only way of being sure that you avoid the a fate of being condemned by our protean Zeitgeist is by a fixed policy of retreating promptly in the face of every latest advance in the thinking of the pornocrats who govern Western Public Opinion. Which is what PECUSA very competently does. (I'm sorry we never hear about PECUSA nowadays. It always sounded to me delightfully like peccousa, which would be a late-antique grecising feminine participle of a Latin verb.)

It seems to me that one has to decide between the Magisterium of Paul VI and that of Ms Jefferts Schori. It seems to me logically unfair to criticise either of these Pontiffs except from the viewpoint of the other. Condemning either one of them from the sort of middle-of-the-Anglican-road position taken, as I understand it, by some admirers of GAFCON and by followers of Bishop Duncan and by some in what I believe is called the Continuum, is pure crass ... sorry, I meant purely crass. Only an adverb can modify an adjective.


Fr LR said...

Despite the dizzying high ground claimed by Continuum folk (re: GAFCON, Duncan et al., that they swallowed the camel of Women’s O, yet strain at the gnat of a sod) it’d be nice if they didn’t drip with hypocrisy. I recall that one of their bishops (this one unlike others not divorced and remarried) officiated a marriage and communicated the couple numerous times with the Most Blessed Sacrament; yet latter declared the marriage “never took place.” Nice little trick, that.

Is it any wonder they kick so hard against the Pope? They can’t look him in the eye. Your dear college founder, Nathaniel Woodard, was not alone in his ability to conjure terror in the heart of closeted contemptibles. They despise Anglicanorum coetibus for fear of a Papal raised eyebrow - the unspoken, “I know what you’ve done.”

Vidi_Aquam said...

Quite right, Father. The 'debate about sexuality and gender' could be characterised as sexual morality (based on Divine Revelation) versus sexual ethics (based on reason and custom). Anything in between doesn't stand up to rigorous scrutiny. It is one of the great chimeras of the post-modern age that there is some kind of via media between these two, whether it is sought in 'procreative contexts' or 'relational sex'. There are determinative universal principles at work, the only question is which to adopt. When pushed, most people do come down one way or the other, whether they understand the consequences of their opinion fully or not.

The curious thing is that these two camps are in no way arranged along denominational lines, they co-exist in most Christian groups. You will find more Christians living what looks like a traditional Catholic sexual ethic in the 'zwarte kousen' (extreme Reformed) villages in Holland than in any Catholic town in the same country. You only have to look at the birth rates for evidence.

GOR said...

Yes Father, I suspect you have opened a can of worms, as it were. Certainly, things have changed greatly since Lambeth VI when there was still some clear agreement between CofE and RCs in these matters. And the advent of The Pill (1950-ish…?) was likely the catalyst for the Papal Commission in the 60s (actually set up by John XXIII, but expanded and came to completion during the reign of Paul VI).

What the Commission would report and what the Pope would decide was a hot topic in seminary and the Church in general in the 1960s. Many expected that some relaxation of the norms would be forthcoming – modern technology and all that. It is said that even the future Pope John Paul I, then a Cardinal, expected some change.

Thus, people were conditioned to expect a change and all awaited expectantly for the Holy Father’s encyclical. When Humanae Vitae finally emerged there was “shock and awe” over it. A favorite phrase of my mother’s was: “Expect not and you shall not be disappointed”. Well many expected – and were greatly disappointed. A veritable firestorm erupted with priests, bishops, prominent laypeople and even bishops’ conferences calling the Encyclical and the Holy Father into question. Once it became known that the majority opinion had been in favor of change (thanks to the reporting of The Tablet in the UK and the National Catholic Reporter here in the US) the decibel level of dissent went through the roof.

What was forgotten - or intentionally ignored - in the matter, was that Paul VI didn’t advance any new doctrine. He merely reiterated what had been constant Church teaching from the beginning. Few prominent voices were raised in support of him and it was a very trying time. I do recall Malcolm Muggeridge (not yet a Catholic, but always sympathetic to Catholicism), praising the Holy Father and the Church for holding the line and reaffirming Church teaching.

I feel that it was from that time that things really went downhill in terms of sexual morality. The Holy Father’s words were prescient: “Let them first consider how easily this course of action [contraception] could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.”

Christian Year said...

Anglicanism diverged from "the common ancient traditions" from 1930 onwards. The Lambeth Conference of that year declared:

Resolution 15

The Life and Witness of the Christian Community - Marriage and Sex

Where there is clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, the method must be decided on Christian principles. The primary and obvious method is complete abstinence from intercourse (as far as may be necessary) in a life of discipline and self-control lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless in those cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles. The Conference records its strong condemnation of the use of any methods of conception control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience.

Kiran said...

What is sometimes disturbing is to hear or read people taking the opposite view to what you have put forward above (in re pill and condom), in approving of the condom but not of the pill. This view seems popular with Lutherans (LCMS) and with the Orthodox.

I would be overjoyed to be assured otherwise by anyone in the know, that the Orthodox, by and large, do not approve of condoms.

But Gore's question comes up again: Can a man be refused absolution for not being repentant of this? It is academic to a certain extent (since those who will mention it in confession will be repentant) unless of course, one prods in a confessional.

Christian said...


Not so! Contraception is clearly not against nature. It is thus opposed to the Natural Law. Natural Law ethics is based entirely upon reason and in no way upon Revelation. It just so happens that Revelation accords with the Natural Law (unsurprisingly as they are both God's laws).

No, modern "sexual ethics" are largely based upon *bad* customs and *faulty* reasoning.

Truth never contradicts truth.

Christian said...

oops! I mean, contraception *is* against nature! Sorry for that typo.

Col. Hugo Thrumpington-Mange said...

Father, I was hoping you were going to explain to us why so many Anglo-Catholic priests are gay. Many of these priests are clearly frustrated with the Apostolic Constitution because they will not be crossing the Tiber with their boyfriends in tow.
A student friend of mine once asked, "Why is it that students at theological colleague who have a heterosexual affair get sent down, and yet those who have a gay liaison stay on?"

Dorothy said...

I can remember the period when the Birth Control Commission was at its work. Theologians began to tell the faithful that "an uncertain law does not bind", and that while the Commission was still deliberating they could use contraceptive methods if they wished.

For many Catholics, a habit must have been formed, whether of action or of attitude; and by the time the constant moral law was eventually confirmed, something had been lost in them, and in that aspect of their lives they did not return to the faith.

I agree with GOR that "it was from that time that things really went downhill in terms of sexual morality".

JamesIII said...

It seems that we have, to use a Yank idiom, gotten things barse-ackwards. We hear all the talk about making the church relevant to society when it is society that needs to become relevant to the church and her teachings. It has always been so.

andrew said...

Orthodox and condoms?

Until very recently, the Orthodox were quite negative about contraception, but not being armed with either a magisterial pronouncement on the one hand or a tightly-knit, articulate argument from natural law, they tended to make this less a matter of public teaching and more a matter of pastoral council, if even that.

More recently the Orthodox have tried coming to terms with the contraception revolution, but it seems to me (as an Orthodox priest) that this coming to terms is scarcely critical in any meaningful sense, and mostly a de facto accomodation.

I think it safe to say that many Orthodox priests would take the line: no abortifacients (chemical or IUD), no fooling with hormones and a woman's chemistry (so no pill). This leaves some sort of barrier method, of which condoms are one. Vasectomy is traditionally frowned on, although not perhaps were there a number of children already, or some other medical need. Tubal ligation seems so medical that it passes beneath the radar. Condoms are thought a lesser problem than the pill, though perhaps a problem.

I think it is widely felt that keeping temperature charts and closely examining cervical mucus and booking intimate moments on the fridge calendar is not particularly 'natural', although I know of several Orthodox priests who recommend 'natural family planning'.

fathergregory said...

Well - as an Orthodox priest (and even before ordination) I advise as I have been advised by other Orthodox (clergy and lay): for married people family planning is fine, and I would sometimes the moral thing to do, as long as the goal is 'planning to have a family responsibly.' The goal cannot be 'to not have children at all.' Marriage and sex are NOT means for procreation though procreation naturally occurs in marriage. The purpose of sex is NOT to have children but to give expression to mutual marital love and personal commitment. Animals have sex for procreation without such 'personal commitment' and people are not animals after all.

The Orthodox community is nor universally agreed about this, but a significant number of Orthodox (clergy and lay) do not necessarily have problems with contraception. Abortion - of course - is an entirely different issue.

Fr. Gregory Wassen

Christian Year said...

Some very interesting comments from the Orthodox direction.

Is it such a "common ancient tradition" after all?

Perhaps it is a question which could only be addressed in modern times, in the light of a massively larger number of educated, married lay Christians than ever previously existed in Christian history, for whom the views of monks such as Charles Gore or celibates such as popes do not carry so much weight as before.

Perhaps Paul VI should have paid more attention to his own advisers. His justifications for not doing so (see the text of Humanae Vitae itself) are hardly convincing. Most married Catholics do not accept his interpretation of the tradition, which would require married women to bear as many children as naturally possible.

Fr Gregory Wassen seems to strike the right balance.

Fr LR said...

Methinks I see that the Orthodox don't quite live up to their nom de plume of "Orthodox" as concerns marriage and all that jazz. Looks to me like they need themselves a magisterium, eh?

Historically speaking, in the last century and a half the Orthodox of Egypt, Syria and Turkey intentionally kept their families small so they could have more disposable income and get their 2.3 children good over-seas educations. They lost the demographics war with the Mohamadeans and those nations are now lost.

Sounds fundamentalist, I know, but when Christians stop trusting God to determine family size, God stops giving them victory over their foes both foreign and domestic. You Orthodox may see a condom but what I see is a Moloch costume. “They were stained with their own works, and went a whoring with their own inventions.”

I mean, *really.*

We all know that in conceiving a child man is allowed to participate with God in the creation of a rational soul – pretty powerful stuff. Those who think they need be “prudent,” blasphemously underestimate the power of Him who owns the cattle on a thousand hills and presume that Providence blushes at their audacity. Or that God is even such a one as they are quipping, “happy is the man whose quiver is as full as he decides it should be.”

Ibsen had you types figured: “Troll, to thy self be enough!”

Kiran said...

Fr. Andrew, thanks for that. I think NFP is frequently badly explained, and occasionally misused. For instance, the point of NFP is not (as is sometimes alleged) solely the intention of the act, but so far as I understand it, the act as it influences the integrity of both persons. So, yes. Certainly, it is possible to use NFP legalistically, just as it is possible to keep the moral law legalistically. But I think that sort of legalistic approach either simply works against itself, or on the other hand, even if one starts out legalistically, eventually it will blossom out into a better understanding of each other. Secondly, there is the question of why intercourse using condoms is legitimate, and other non-genital sexual acts are not.

I am an convert from Anglicanism to the Catholic Church in the Sydney Archdiocese and here, the Anglican dean here (Phillip Jensen) gave a talk in support of masturbation, for instance. Obviously, this would not hold water if one held that sex is necessarily an act involving two persons of the opposite sex married to each other, but having said that, it seems something more is required, or else we lapse back into the position mentioned above.

Christian said...

What absurdity! Of course sex is for procreation. There is no marriage in heaven, let us not forget. The main point of marriage is procreation. Dear me. Anyway, I am sure if you asked the Russian or Greek hierarchy they would condemn contraception. All I can say is that I hope that it is true that at least the monastic Orthodox clergy maintain ancient disapline.

Little Black Sambo said...

"Marriage and sex are NOT means for procreation."
News to me.
The BCP (i.e. 1662)gives an excellent account of the reasons for matrimony, entirely suited to modern people. I hope it is used in all our parish churches.

andrew said...

Kiran - You are likely right about the higher purpose and context of NFP. It seems to me that it not infrequently becomes a passing obsession for certain couples, very focused on the mechanics at home, and of almost ideological intensity in public. But may such things enrich that famous 'mutuality' which is such an important good of marriage!

By the way, Orthodox moral teaching subsumes the traditional goods of marriage - procreation, mutual support, domesticating desire - under the heading 'path to salvation'. Marriage is a path to, a means of salvation. No one was ever saved, as one of the fathers says, by means of ease or convenience. There is some degree of ascetic effort required from us in the calculus of salvation, at least in appropriating it. Whatever the ranking of the goods - and under grace procreation need not be the first of them, yet it most certainly is one of them - the goods are not good in themselves but mostly to the extent that they further our mutual salvation. One might well ask (and should ask): in what way does contraception further holiness, sanctity, godliness?

The problem with contraception is that it often drains the reality of the ascetic aspect of intimacy, and the implications of intimacy, from intimacy itself. Sex becomes more like an itch - or rather a scratch - than an act of communion open to grace through providence. It is above all the danger of developing the attitude of self-centeredness, convenience, consumerism, that I fear as a pastor.

It is an odd thing that in a world so fascinated by the inter-connectedness of all things, the web of life, deep ecology, disconnecting sex and procreation should be so casually accepted.

It is all well and good to talk about responsible contraception, but the tool all to readily turns in the hand to wound it.

Christian said...

Little Black Sambo,

Then again, the BCP describes marriage as "an honourable estate". The phrase was used to specifically attack the ancient Tradition that celibacy is superior to marriage. A fact that is often forgotten today, even by supposedly "biblical" Christians.

Kiran said...

Fr Andrew, (as to asceticism) yes indeed. Which is why I expect the Orthodox to be stricter on these matters than are we.

The inducement to ascetism and self-denial by the way is another advantage I have heard extolled of NFP(not being in a position myself to have first-hand knowledge of these matters). It does seem to me that couples who practice NFP, and have many children, do tend to be (in my view) ascetical.

All of this talk of responsibility, though is, I think, disingenuous. Responsibility tends to be interpreted, in our puritan-influenced culture as "looking after number 1" or (only slightly better) taking care of individuals. Responsibility is neither, on this view, stewardship nor related to society, but to myself.

andrew said...

All of this talk of responsibility, though is, I think, disingenuous. Responsibility tends to be interpreted, in our puritan-influenced culture as "looking after number 1" or (only slightly better) taking care of individuals. Responsibility is neither, on this view, stewardship nor related to society, but to myself.

I like the way you think, Kiran!

David said...

You wrote on homophobia and marriage. I wonder why the comments are 14:1 about the latter, when the former seems to generate more heat and venom in the christian community at large.

William Tighe said...

One learns something new almost every day on this blog. Today I learned, for instance, from Fr. Gregory that the late Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras (1948-1972; born 1886) was effectively ignorant of Orthodox Tradition and practice on the matter of contraception; or at least I must conclude so when considering, on the one hand, Fr. Gregory's remarks here and, on the other, the late Patriarch's letter to Pope Paul VI dated 9 August 1968 in which he praised without reserve the pope's recent encyclical letter *Humanae Vitae* and congratulated the bishop of the elder Rome for defending their "common faith."

William Tighe said...

But then, of course, it is possible that the late Ecumenical Patriarch was himself a victim of that "Western Captivity of Orthodoxy" of which we have heard so much in recent years from Orthodox proponents of contraception, the "ordination" of women to "the diaconate" and the like.

Kiran said...

Fr. Andrew, thank you. I like much orthodox thought too. It seems to be playing an increasing part both in my thesis, and in my life in general.

Dr. Tighe, well said! Didn't the Patriarch Kirill of Moscow stand up to defend the Pope's stance on condoms in Africa (though that was to do with AIDS, not a general support)? The Wikipedia article states one St. Ignatius Brianchaninov as saying that contraception is gravely sinful. I also notice that at least one Orthodox site reproduces Elizabeth Anscombe's Contraception and Chastity.

I tend to think that it is precisely the acceptance of contraception that marks a "western captivity", a captivity by the very worst of the West.

Vidi_Aquam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vidi_Aquam said...

Thanks for your correction Christian. Is it then correct to say then that Natural Law and Revelation are not God's law revealed, as it were, in two sources, but two distinct yet congruent laws: one found in nature and known through reason (unaided by faith) and the other found in Revelation?

What impact does this have on the fact that protestant fundamentalists seem to be much more likely to live out Catholic teaching than Catholics themselves?

FrLR's reasoning that God should determine family size is exactly the reason why the birth rate amongst the 'Gereformeerde'(extreme Reformed protestants in Holland- where I live) is so high. Amongst Catholics (even practicing ones) the birth rate here is as abysmal as the rest of society.

It would seem to me that in general First-world Catholics (including the clergy) do not accept or perhaps understand the natural law. I know anecdotally, and through personal experience, of many instances of Roman priests (even in the most conservative contexts) being very soft on masturbation, gay relationships (let's face they often have them themselves - with or without genital activity) and contraception.