Category Archives: 91 Books

"The Sexual Person"

I have just completed a first reading of “The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology (Moral Traditions)“, by the Catholic theologians Todd A. Salzmann and Michael G. Lawler.  I stress here, “a first reading”, as I have no doubt that this will be for me one of those foundational texts that I return to again and again.  After just an introductory acquaintance, I have no intention of attempting here any kind of formal assessment or review, but I do want to share some preliminary thoughts, some of which I propose to expand into full posts a little later.
The constantly evolving, ever-changing  Catholic tradition.
Whatever it is that Vatican spokesmen mean when they refer to the Church’s “constant and unchanging tradition”, it cannot be what the plain English words appear to mean. Across the full range  of sexual ethics, Catholic tradition has changed constantly. This is not only an historical fact, it is also inevitable and in fact demanded by the Magisterium itself. I particularly like the words of a certain Joseph Ratzinger, which highlight the importance of identifying and correcting the “distorting tradition” in the Church:
“Not everything that exists in the Church must for that reason be also a legitimate tradition…. There is a distorting tradition as well as a legitimate tradition, ….[and] …consequently tradition must not be considered only affirmatively but also critically.”

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The Distorted Modern Teaching on Marriage and Procreation

The often repeated claim that marriage and sexual intercourse exist primarily for the purposes of procreation, is simply fallacious. It is clear from the Magisterium itself that there are several purposes to both. The additional claim by Pope Paul VI in “Humanae Vitae” that every sexual act must be open to the production of new life, is in fact a distortion of clear earlier statements that the requirement is for the marriage to be open to procreation – not every single sexual act.

The bizarre parallel claim in Humanae Vitae that marriages which are sterile, or which deliberately avoid pregnancy by “Natural” Family Planning, raise serious doubts about the validity of the simultaneous insistence that homosexual activities are necessarily prohibited as not open to procreation.

The Distortions of Natural Law

“Natural law” is widely used as a pretext for the condemnation of homosexual acts, but the concept itself is poorly understood.  Salzmann and Lawler present extensive evidence that a more accurate reading of the concept is in fact supportive of sexual activities between men or between women, in specific circumstances, for people who have a homosexual orientation.

The Distortions of Scripture

It is by now well established that numerous scholars have shown that the traditional use of a half dozen verses from the Bible as clobber texts to condemn all homoerotic acts is based on distortion, relying on misinterpretation, mistranslation, or plain misrepresentation. “The Sexual Person” summarizes these familiar critiques, concluding that the most important feature of the very limited Biblical references to homoerotic acts is that they simply do not take account of the existence of a homosexual orientation as we know it to exist. Recognizing such an attraction, the authors submit, leads to the conclusion that the references to “unnatural acts” in Romans must imply that for people with a natural homosexual orientation, sexual activities with others of the same sex are entirely natural, and so not condemned by Paul.
On the other hand, attempts to force us into heterosexual marriage are indeed attempts to enforce what for us are “unnatural acts” – and so condemned by Paul.

(I would go further, and add that by extension, even enforced celibacy is unnatural, and so condemned by Paul, and also a contravention of natural law, properly understood).

The Distorted Teaching on Cohabitation

Perhaps the most eye-opening chapter of the book for me, was that on cohabitation.  I grew up with the clear understanding from my Catholic education, which I often heard repeated, that all sexual activity before our outside of marriage was expressly forbidden – and that marriage in effect commenced with the marriage ceremony, as solemnized in a Catholic Church, by a Catholic priest, in front of witnesses.  More recently, I have recognized that this idea of marriage as an obligatory sacrament, required before legitimate sexual intercourse, was a relatively modern one.
Until reading “The Sexual Person”, I did not realize quite how modern an idea it is, or how far it is flatly contradicted by the practice of the church for at least three quarters of Christian history, right up to the Council of Trent and even beyond.  Previously, the church wedding (if it took place at all) was not an event that began the process of marriage and legitimized husband and wife living together in a sexual relationship, but merely a public acknowledgement of a partnership that may have begun long before, with mutual consent consummated by immediate sexual intercourse. What today we would call “cohabitation” did not precede the marriage – it initiated it. It did precede the public wedding – but that was of no importance to the sacramentality of the marriage itself, or to the legality of the sexual relationshipthat accompanied it.
For most of Catholic tradition, it is then clear that any conception of sin in cohabitation before marriage was impossible – as soon as cohabitation began, the marriage commenced. Applying this reasoning to the modern situation, where (for good reasons) we accept the importance of a public commitment in a wedding ceremony, we should also recognize that marriage is a process, not a one-day event. The process begins with the private commitment to each other. As long as the cohabitation is part of a nuptial process leading up to marriage, and not a simple shacking up, Catholic tradition suggests that we should recognize and accept cohabitation prior to the wedding as part of the marriage, and so fully valid.
Gay marriage and Catholic Tradition.
Here I move on to more treacherous ground, but as I read in this book so many extracts from Church documents on our sexual lives and on marriage and family, I was struck by how little amendment is needed to extend church endorsement of the value of marriage, as sacrament and as an institution furthering both private and public good, to include same sex couples alongside all others.
The Theological Ferment Under Way.
“The Sexual Person” has made waves in the press, largely as a result of the US Bishops’ criticism of it. However, it is far from unique in highlighting the contradictions and failings of current orthodoxy on sexual et
hics. It now becomes clearer than ever to me that there is a fundamental rethink under way. This has not yet broken through into major papal pronouncements or Vatican documents – but I am certain that they will soon start to do so. When they do, they will no doubt be accompanied once again by the comforting assurances that these new, more human and sympathetic understandings of human sexuality have been around for decades (as they have), and so form part of the “constant and unchanging Catholic tradition”.

La plus ça change…..

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Michael B Kelly: "Seduced by Grace"

Last night’s Mass in Soho was eventful for three different reasons – over and above the Mass itself.  Before Mass, I was interviewed for the first time by a reader, a visiting journalism student from Phoenix, Arizona.  After Mass, we arranged a screening of the powerful documentary movie, “For the Bible Tells Me So”.  I have written of this before (and hope to do so again), but a second viewing was welcome.  This was an entirely new venture, undertaken with some uncertainty whether people would stay for a further 90 minutes after Mass and refreshments, but we need not have worried.  Close on 30 gay men stayed behind – and our token straight woman.  (Where were our lesbian sisters, I wonder?). The response was overwhelmingly positive, and we will undoubtedly repeat the exercise on other ocassions.

But we were still not done.  After the screening, were introduced to another visitor, Michael B. Kelly from Australia, founder of Rainbow Sash Australia, a noted retreat director and a writer on spirituality from an explicitly gay male perspective. He is in London to present a paper at an academic conference on spiritualityin which he is to argue (if I understand him correctly) that gay men, by reflecting and sharing on their erotic experiences and using them in their own practice of spirituality, can make a valuable contribution to spirituality in the wider church.  This is a paper that I dearly long to read when I have the chance – and hope to persuade Michael to allow me to post it here.  After a brief meeting at the church, I was determined to continue the discussion, so accompanied Michael and others to supper in Soho, where we enjoyed further lengthy conversation on matters religious and sexual.  I will meet up with him again, and will certainly write more about his work and insights on other ocassions.

What I want to share with you now is some reviews I have come up against of his book,“Seduced by Grace”.

Seduced by Grace_ Michael Bernard Kelly

I have not as yet had the good fortune to read it for myself, but on the strength of my meeting with him, and the reviews I have read, I would heartily urge you to hunt down a copy and read it for yourself.

From a perspective which is gay, but not Catholic:

“While the dyspeptic (iconoclastic?) Christopher Hitchens is content to go on bashing his straw-man ‘God’ (see God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, 2007), a more interesting set of insights into that tired, overworked tradition has come from what might seem to be an unlikely source — a self-professed Gay man and, moreover, one who knows from first-hand experience the shortcomings of his Church (specifically, its Roman Catholic incarnation). For Michael Bernard Kelly, as David Marr puts it, has ‘has come out but stayed in’—rather than quitting a homophobic Church in disgust, he is pushing for it to renovate itself from within. A potent collection of thoughtful writings by Kelly, the noted Australian Catholic dissident, Seduced by Grace gathers essays, articles, letters and talks he has produced over almost a decade, from late 1998 to May 2004, that are at once an acutely accurate critique of the shortcomings of the Church and a poignant testimonial to the heroic spirit that has, at times, invigorated it.

Kelly the activist is (in)famous in Australia. He was one of the founders of the Rainbow Sash movement that has been a thorn in Cardinal George Pell’s side, with its public challenge to the Catholic Church’s treatment of Gay and Lesbian people (the movement has been taken up in the United States, also) and in this role, he has become a prominent media spokesperson for Gay Catholics. But as is clear from the opening piece in this collection, “On the Peninsula, alone with God,” Kelly’s activism is grounded in contemplative practice. He has produced a stimulating video lecture series, “The Erotic Contemplative: the spiritual journey of the Gay Christian” (through Joseph Kramer’s Erospirit Institute) and leads Gay spirit retreats at Easton Mountain, in New York State, as well as in Australia and the U.K. His voice reaches loudly and clearly across the once impassable divide between eros and spiritus. Kelly is now working on a doctorate in the field of Christian mysticism and Gay experience at an Australian university.

Raised in an Irish Catholic family in Melbourne and educated in Church schools, Kelly was smitten early with the religious life and served as an altar boy, assisting priests in the celebration of Mass, as all good Catholic sons would do. As a teenager, he was inspired by the life and example of Francis of Assisi —“Who could resist a dancing saint?” he asks in his short piece on the inspiring 12th Century figure. He actually joined the Franciscans at 17, but eventually left the Order, and while remaining celibate, continued to work as a religious education specialist and campus minister in Catholic schools and universities for a further seventeen years, before taking the fateful decision to come out, and to come to terms with his sexuality — a decision which, of course, cost him his job. But he continued his studies in theology (including a master’s in spirituality in San Francisco) and today inspires many men with his revisioning of a spiritual life not predicated on a denial of the body. Kelly says his dick keeps him honest.

More power to him. This is the kind of “real world” starting point that earths his spirituality and renders his positions convincing to those of us who have found more breathing room outside the stifling environs of Christian idealism.”

Read the full review at the White Crane.

Or, for  a perspective which is Catholic, but not gay, go to Catholica Australia:

“By the time I’d finished reading I was convinced that every family with a gay* member should read this book — but I soon corrected that to everyone — full stop! Michael has something very important to say and we do ourselves and society a disservice if we don’t give him a hearing. As Catholics, we pay lip-service to any ideas of ‘compassion, sensitivity and respect’ if we don’t at the very least enter into a dialogue with gay people — which includes truly listening to them — and Michael B Kelly is certainly a worthy spokesperson.

“As a woman I don’t pretend to understand what it must be fully like to inhabit the body and psyche of a man, yet I love men, and particularly my husband and my own son. As a heterosexual I likewise find it extremely difficult to personally understand what it must be like to inhabit the psyche of someone who is sexually attracted to others of their own sex. It’s almost like me trying to imagine what it must be like to have been born black. In the music industry I have worked with many people who are gay, and some of them have become close friends.

Michael’s voice is a prophetic one. It enables us to better understand what it must be like to feel imprisoned as one of the sectors of society who are discriminated against and maligned because of the life circumstances they were borne into and have very little control over.Michael Bernard Kelly is a man who carries himself with great dignity and, in a very real sense, provides leadership not only to gays but to other sectors in society who are discriminated against and maligned unjustly.”

I was intrigued by the reference to Kelly as ‘out’ (as gay), but still ‘in’ (the Catholic Church).  Some of my readers may recall that that was virtually the title of my opening statement when I set up this blog – “Welcome: Come In, and Come Out“.  We clearly share a lot in common.

I repeat:  find this book, and read it.

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